News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 9

Emerging Engineers

So before we go any further, a serious health warning, if you are the sort of person who feels the need to reach for the sick bucket whenever you hear self-congratulation then you may prefer to skip this episode all together, because over the next few paragraphs there is going to be A LOT of trumpet blowing. I am not kidding.

You have been warned.

Our students are amazing. I mean my students, my Civil Engineering students[1]. Incredible. Just this year Amy won the regional heats of the Women in Property Student Awards and Grace won the regional heats of the ICE (Institute of Civil Engineers) Emerging Engineers award and was runner-up in the final against two graduates who had been working for a few years (and she was a finalist in another award, along with yet another of our students). And neither of them have graduated.

If you think this is a blip, you’re wrong, our graduates had such an amazing run of winning the NCE graduate of the year award[2] that I fear that subsequent, also just-as-amazing, graduates may have been overlooked.

But it’s not just the odd student, it’s all of them. Bristol Civil Engineering graduates are amazing. I know this because I have a long list of employers who tell me. One was recently telling me how impressed they were by the recent Bristol Graduate they had employed and how seamlessly they had moved into the role of graduate engineer, successfully taking on jobs he would expect an engineer with a few years’ experience to do.

And this has nothing to do with ‘The Office’- not a sausage- because all of these things have already happened. They happened before I started The Office project.

I was having a really interesting conversation with Stuart (who is the Director of Careers Services), and it struck me how I had presented The Office as something different, maybe even something special. That it was possible to read all the blog posts and think that it exists in isolation. It was possible to think it worked because of my hard work and enthusiasm and not realise everyone else in my department (and school) is similarly hard-working and enthusiastic. That when my students enter The Office, they are ready. They have learnt to work in teams. They have become self-motivated and self-actuated learners. They know what it means to take on a wicked problem, to consider options, to put their new found learning into a context.

A few months ago, I emailed a graduate and asked them to finish the following sentence as part of updating our website.

“In my current job…”

Their response is very telling…

“In my current job… as a structural engineer, I have been feeling no difference than working on design project in the university but in more detail.”

That their work in industry, at a professional practice, where they are being employed, feels like a continuation of working on the final design project on their Civil Engineering degree. A project that has been running for years, involves numerous industrial supervisors, and is a credit to our staff and students.

In Jenni Case’s “Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar” tool 4 is all about ‘communities of practice’[3]. Communities of practice started off as an education theory where educators and older students are at the centre of the community and that newer students are at the edge but they are moving into the community. Jenni Case argues that in an engineering sense industry and ‘practice’ is at the centre and students are at the edge. That there is a language, a set of behaviours, a series of tools[4], and that as students learn, they become more able to access the community, that they are better prepared for practice.

I really like this idea. And I think that we have been embedding this practice in our teaching in Civil Engineering for years. Whether in our surveying field trip, or our professional practice unit, or our labs, or our different design-focussed units, or our two programme-level assessments – one that draws all that students have learnt and challenges them to go much deeper, by carrying out a research project, presenting at a conference and writing a journal paper[5] – the other that draws on all that students have learnt and challenges them to work in mutli-disciplinary teams to take large and complex problems and solve them both creatively and safely (this is the traditional engineering bit) – with the projects mostly taken from engineering practices.

I also think that to try and teach, sorry, I mean lecture, on the things students need to know to become more engaged with the community of practice, is the wrong approach, that it’s by embedding this information into our other teaching that it comes alive. That by looking at what we already teach and reimagining the delivery, without changing the ‘knowledge’ content, we can add so much more to the student’s experience.

So when Toby and Marnie (BILT Student Fellows) came to visit my students in The Office and asked them about the experience[6], my students were slightly non-plussed by their questions, because far from feeling like a different approach to learning, working in groups on projects felt very much like a natural continuation of everything that they had done before.

That we, the department of Civil Engineering, have worked hard to create a course which develops ‘Emerging Engineers’. That when our students arrive, normally from school but not always, they often don’t know what a noggin[7] is, or what units to use on a drawing, or that when we ask them to submit a coursework with a specific file name we mean it. But as they develop, as they draw into the engineering community, they become engineers.

However, it is important to note two things. Firstly, that I use the phrase ‘emerging’ engineer because it takes the duration of our four-year course for our students to transition from school pupils to engineers. This requires careful planning and looking across the whole programme to find opportunities for learning the skills required to be an engineer.

Secondly it is very much a team effort. That our department is a community of practice. We talk together, support each other, make suggestions and work collaboratively to make this happen. This point is really quite important because if we were to deliver a unit in the style of the office without all this collaboration and development of students I suspect the outcome would be very different. That trying to embed authentic learning is not something that can be done at unit level but needs to be considered and mapped across the degree and that we appreciate the development of our engineers and match our expectations accordingly. 

I appreciate that I have barely mentioned the role of ‘The Office’ in this post. I hope that it will play a small part in helping our engineers to emerge. But really, I wanted everyone to be able to see the bigger picture. The hard work of my colleagues. The breadth of considered pedagogy. That actually, without The Office, I really think that we would still be helping them to emerge as engineers, no wait, that’s not quite right, that we have already helped hundreds and hundreds of students emerge as engineers. Engineers who are working around the world right now, taking on big complex challenges and who are thriving in what they are doing.

Next week is the penultimate episode – and we are not shying away from exciting topics with a look at work-life balance.

PS, last week was my birthday so my amazing wife and son cooked cake which I brought in for all my employees. It was much appreciated by everyone!



[1] Please note that 2 months ago I became School Education Director. I have no doubt that the students and staff in my school are all equally brilliant and I hope, over the coming years to blow many trumpets for all of them, but as I am new to this role I mostly know about the students and staff in Civil Engineering and hence I am focussing on them for this blog.

[2] From 2012 to 2017 our students won three times and were runners up, commended or a finalist a further three times!

[3] Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[4] See my blog on scale rules as an example:- https://bilt.online/teaching-stories-1-rulers-for-all/

[5] Many of which go on to be published in academic journals

[6] See the BILT Blog post:- https://bilt.online/an-atypical-day-in-the-office/

[7] You may be interested to know that a noggin is a small piece of timber placed between floor joists to stop them rotating, the term has become popularised by the phrase ‘use your noggin’ because not including them can lead to the floor collapsing

Two cows at the gate
Teaching Stories

A BILT Project: Evaluating a clinical skills lab as an active learning space: sharing best practice and identifying areas for improvement

Alison Catterall, Rachel Christopher, Sam Brown, Sarah Baillie, Clinical Skills Lab Team, Bristol Vet School.

The Clinical Skills Lab (CSL) at Bristol Vet School provides a student-centred learning space that combines taught practicals with an open-access policy allowing students to practise as required. The CSL opened in 2012 and is now embedded in the BVSc curriculum. The CSL team considered it timely to undertake a review of the CSL teaching, which was based on factors considered important for active learning spaces (Peberdy 2014). We aimed to identify best practice, new ideas and ways to further enhance student learning. CSL usage data were collected from the timetable which showed that the CSL is in use most days of the week as practicals are now included throughout the BVSc (Years 1-5).

The open-access sign-in sheets illustrated that there was continuous use year-round, complemented by strategic use prior to assessments and clinical rotations. Focus groups were conducted with veterinary students (in year groups) and one group of veterinary nursing students. Questions covered aspects of the physical space, how students were using the CSL, and how the variety of resources supported learning.

A survey was sent to recent graduates to ascertain what aspects of the CSL had helped them prepare for work-placements and their job as a vet, and to identify additional skills that should be taught in the CSL. Students and recent graduates appreciated the benefits of being taught in a dedicated clinical skills facility throughout the curriculum and the open-access policy. Opportunities to further support student learning included enhanced communication and teaching additional skills.

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol: Elsie Aluko

Spotlight on ‘Supporting Risk’

Elsie Aluko is a second year Physics student, and founder of the AfroLit society. We meet to grab a coffee at the Hawthorn’s Café and are lucky enough to find one of the coveted window seats. We get the opportunity to reflect on the pitfalls of the ‘university bubble’, and discuss the risks and rewards of starting a new society.

So how has your experience been of Bristol so far? You’re allowed to say bad things but no swearing…

I wouldn’t dream of it! I think’s it been an interesting ride, initially I found it quite difficult, settling in to the city, and feeling like I belonged at the university took a while. I don’t know if I’m even really there yet. It’s a very different experience to my time at school, I think the university is quite disjointed to the city, initially that made me feel quite confused. Now I feel like I’m at home here, I’ve made friends, I’ve made connections with people that get me and I feel settled in my department at university. I feel like I have a community here and I love it. Sorry I’m not sure that was very cohesive!

No that was a lovely answer! You said the university feels quite disjointed from the city, why did you feel that way initially? Do you still feel that way now?

I definitely do still feel that way. I think it’s symptomatic of the city as a whole, I think Clifton, Redland, the city centre, I think the parts of the city that the university buildings are in are disjointed from the city. It’s really easy to feel like the triangle, Clifton and Eat-a-Pita, are the only things that exist in Bristol. No shade I promise! But there’s so much more to the city, there’s so much history, there’s so much culture and there’s so much going on. It’s so easy to get stuck in the uni bubble, and although it’s not a campus uni, it feels like a campus. You have to actively break out of that bubble or you’re going to spend your whole time here not knowing even ten percent of the story. So I didn’t feel like I had a place within that uni bubble initially, finding that there were other spaces outside of that bubble really helped.

How did you find those other spaces?

I think to some extent I just stumbled upon things. I think every now and then they’ll be opportunities that crop up in university that kind of draw you out and bring you to see that there are other things. Yeah, I think also through the community I also had at my place of worship. That made me feel I had a connection to the city, because it was a community completely outside of the university.

So this year you started AfroLit society, what does that stand for and why did you decide to start it?

So AfroLit is the African Literature society, the idea is that it’s a place that you can learn about, engage with and talk about literature produced by people of African descent. It’s essentially a book club. But I also want it to be a portal through which people can find opportunities, events and things to do with arts and culture produced by black people in this city. I started it because I always loved reading, but I’d not always read books by African authors, I’d just not done it. It’s not really something that is encouraged in school when you do English literature, the books I was presented with were all very specific white European authors, I wanted to widen my scope. Literary palate is the word I’m trying to avoid, it’s low-key pretentious! But yeah, that’s what I want to say. I think it’s important because I’d like to consider myself well-read but if you don’t read widely then you can’t be well-read.

This is particularly close to my heart because I’m Nigerian, so reading books by people that I can relate to more directly helps a lot with learning about myself. Literature is a great way to learn about yourself, to learn about others. That’s also kind of the point, you don’t have to be Nigerian to read Nigerian literature, you don’t have to be from the places that these authors are from or have been through the same experiences to appreciate it. In the same way that I didn’t live in Victorian Britain, but I can still read Dickens and appreciate it, because it speaks to something deeper than who we are on the surface, I think it’s about who we are as people. I wanted it to be just a chance for people to learn more about something I’m passionate about.

Do you feel like starting up a literature society was a risk?

Yeah, definitely! I do. I first had the idea for it in 2017 when I read ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‎ and I wanted to start this, but I was way too scared to do it. I didn’t think I was up for it. I didn’t know if anyone else would want to have me, or if anyone would care or anyone would want to be involved. I don’t like doing things that fail. I’m ‘allergic’ to failure, unfortunately for me, even though I do fail a lot. It’s really funny, I was at an assessment centre for a TeachFirst internship and two people I met there asked if I was involved in any societies. I told them I about the societies I was already involved in, but I had an idea for a society and they told me that I had to go for it. I just felt like these two people who don’t go to my uni, who don’t know anything about me are telling me to go for it. What is the worst thing that can happen? The worst thing is that it fails and that’s okay. So, I’m glad, because I was so close to not doing it.

Do you feel like the university encourages or supports you to take those kinds of risks?

I think to an extent yes, the whole point of university is learning and discovery, of yourself, of your subject, of politics, of arts. I feel like it does foster an environment where you are allowed to and encouraged to try new things. So far, I do feel like I’ve had a lot of support. I guess it depends on what kind of risks you’re taking, in AfroLit people have supported me way more than I thought they would, people have shown way more interest than I thought they would. I wouldn’t be here without the support of people. I think people appreciate it when you take risks at university and they want things to work for you, especially if they care. So yeah, I think you are supported in taking risks here.

That’s actually really encouraging to here, it’s interesting talking to people, when it comes to academia some of the students I’ve spoken to felt really nervous about taking risks. They feel such intense pressure to do well. So, taking any sort of risk becomes a big dangerous deal, but it’s nice to know that there are areas where students feel really supported. What are your aspirations this year for yourself and the society?

I want to be able to balance it alongside my degree, I don’t want to let it overrun my studies. For the society my only aspiration is that people who are involved in it enjoy it and feel like it’s worthwhile. Because I started it for myself because I wanted to join a society like this, but it’s not about me. I want to create a space where people can come and learn, no judgement, you don’t have to know anything. I don’t know that much, so you can know literally nothing, you don’t even have to have read a book in the last three years but I want the people that come to our events to feel like their opinions are still valued and feel like they’ve learnt something or enjoyed something. In that sense that’s my only real aspiration for the society. But I’d love to be able to pass it on, that I’ve created something that can be sustainable.

Marnie Woodmeade, BILT Student Fellow, November 2019

Teaching Stories

An (a)typical day in The Office

Amy Palmer, Toby Roberts and Marnie Woodmeade all visited James Norman’s ‘The Office’ project and have shared their experiences below.

Amy’s reflection:

I’d been looking forward to visiting James’ ‘Just Timber’ office since before the concept had even come to fruition. Last year, while catching up over coffee, James told me about his plan to turn on one his classrooms into an office, and I was instantly excited. The project was a combination of all my favourite pedagogies: active learning, blended learning, challenge-led learning, authentic learning, group work… all coming together to form the ‘Just Timber’ office in 1.32 Queens Building.

‘Just Timber’ is a fictional engineering company James has created. His students (employees) were all set timber engineering design projects at the beginning of the unit and are working together to create real designs with real equations in an almost real-world environment. If you want to read more about the project so far, I highly recommend reading ‘The Office’ blog series .

A date was set in the diary to visit, and I invited two of our Student Fellows to come along and join me. And so, last Thursday, we went along and waited for James to show up fifteen minutes late to our visit after almost forgetting we were coming – helping further imitate the real-world, authentic environment (just kidding) and heighten our anticipation further.

And, when we arrived, we were not disappointed. We were welcomed by an offer of tea or coffee (served in a ‘Just Timber’ mug, of course) and then proceeded to look around the office and take it all in.

The first thing I was struck by was the buzz in the room. Not a noisy, can’t-do-any-work’ buzz, but the natural up-and-down of a genuine office environment, with students in their groups switching between their sketching, calculations and discussions with each other over how best to proceed in their projects. Barely a glance was thrown in our direction when we bumbled into the room, the students so engaged in their projects that they weren’t looking for distraction.

We had a quick look around the office, admiring the various projects pinned on the wall, and browsing the elegant engineering magazines by the break-out space. We then proceeded to interrupt students by asking them questions about how they were finding the unit and how it compared to others they were taking.

As you can imagine, they loved it. Of course, they are students, and so the conversations were not void of the odd grumble (nothing you wouldn’t expect from a unit being run for the first time), but the overwhelming response was that they looked forward to Thursdays – regardless of the fact they were spending eight hours in the office – and that the learning they were doing there was both enjoyable, challenging and reflective of an authentic engineering office environment. Some of the students even ended the day with a traditional post-work trip to the pub, further preparing them for life out working in the ‘real world’.

If you’ve been keeping up with The Office blog series, you’ll know that students prepare for their day’s work by watching videos James has created on their VLE, and then come to work to study their projects. This means that time in class/ office is dedicated purely to student-centred work with no didactic teaching. Students highlighted that their favourite aspects of the unit were the group work element, the room layout (large groupings of desks together), the project-centred work and the fact that they had a day dedicated to the unit. Student wouldn’t want all of their modules to run as full-day units, however, but would have found a unit like this in their previous years of study valuable and enjoyable and a great chance to get to know others in their cohort.

James’ Just Timber office is a product of a great idea, hard work and dedication to a new way of learning, and there are many lessons we can take away from designing a unit in this way. Please get in touch with BILT if you’d like to learn more about setting up a project similar to this in your unit.   

Marnie’s reflection:

I had an extremely positive outlook on the Office before I even entered the building; the concept reflected the challenge-led work that I only ever dreamed about during my undergrad. My positivity was only enhanced by the almost immediate offer of cake and tea (an important part of daily office life).  

However, two pieces of feedback from students struck me as unexpected. The first was that students said they genuinely enjoyed being in the Office. Not merely that it was a great educational experience, but they actually looked forward to coming in each day. Having an open-plan office where interaction is encouraged clearly enabled students to really enjoy their time there. 

The other piece of feedback was perhaps more sobering. One student pointed out that although they enjoyed the way the office replicates an engineering company, a ‘real boss’ is unlikely to give mass amounts of work on the same day that five of your other supervisors have given you a deadline. In order for more projects like the Office to succeed, students felt that communication between units is key. This not only has the benefit of reducing their stress but treating students as valued workers positively impacts their outlook on university.  

Toby’s reflection:

One of the things that really struck me about the atmosphere in the Just Timber office (other than the delicious smell of cake courtesy of James’ wife and son) was how much it reminded me of a classroom. Not a school classroom – there wasn’t any paper being thrown around and James hadn’t sent me out to think about how my behaviour affects the rest of the class – but a calmer and more focused 6th Form classroom. And to me that’s a real positive. All of the ‘employees’ were clearly getting work done and you could tell there was a strong sense of purpose. But at the same time, they were relaxed and there was friendliness between them, and the noise of conversation was a world away from the awkward silence of lectures or the hyperactive buzz of a library in exam time. 

However, I wasn’t there to drink in the atmosphere and reminisce about college. The students seemed more than happy to talk to us about the unit, and I think that was in part due to how much they enjoyed it. It was clear that the effort James had put into it had had an effect on them and their attitudes, but it had paid off in producing a rewarding learning experience. 

One area that students weren’t unanimous on was the intense one-day-a-week schedule. Some felt more productive, others exhausted (there was a suggestion that maybe in the future it could not be the day after sports night). However, one interesting element to me was the effect on wellbeing. With so many units and assignments to contend with at once it’s very easy to get overwhelmed as a student. Containing the work within a single 9-5 day helps to compartmentalise and means there’s one less thing to worry about for the rest of the week. Instead, something to look forward to every Thursday.

covers of the books james has read in 2019
Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 8

‘A reading week special’

Depending on when you are reading this it is either reading week, or it is the Friday before reading week. Either way happy reading week*.

Now I don’t know what your plans are for reading week but I really hope you will spend at least some of it, you know, reading. So below are four random thoughts on reading for reading week.

Luke Kennard ‘Cain’ (Printed in the Margins, London, 2016)

Now you may have thought that ‘The Office’ blog series was inspired by some sitcom from a few years back, but you’d be wrong. No no no, the office was really inspired by Luke Kennard’s ‘Cain’ where he takes Genesis Chapter 4 verses 9 to 12 from the Bible and he pulls the words apart, literally reducing them to 355 letters. He then takes those 355 letters and counts how many occurrences there are of each before reconstructing them into 32 ‘episodes’. Each episode containing the 355 letters. A mega anagram. My engineering brain boggles at this concept. I have read and re-read those poems. They are bizarre, abstract, peculiar. But Luke Kennard does not stop hear. Around each poem, literally around them, in tiny red letters there is a narrative deconstructing each ‘episode’ often leaving me more baffled than I was before. But I love this book. I love it’s audacious creativity. I love that he doesn’t stop at 2 or 3 anagrams like any normal person does, but instead he creates 32. THIRTY TWO! I can’t begin to imagine the amount of time and effort that would go into making one let alone 32.

EP8d.jpg

What has this got to do with the office you might be wondering. Well I think ‘The Office’ and actually a lot of teaching is much like Luke Kennard’s series of poems. You may have noticed that every week I write about the same thing, over and over again. But each week I shake it and look from another perspective (if you are of a certain age maybe the game Boggle might help the mental image here). Like Luke Kennard we take the same thing and see it from different perspectives. I think teaching works in much the same way more generally. If we are only interested in the knowledge we pass on, or the skills we provide, or the portfolio piece that students create, or the professional qualifications that students are working towards, if we are only thinking of our teaching as achieving one of these things we miss all sorts of opportunities. Luke Kennard saw those four verses from a story right at the beginning of the Bible and he reimagined them in a very literal sense. I love to think about teaching at a unit level, a year level and a Programme level by looking at it from all these different perspectives. Trying to find opportunities and searching for gaps.

Oh and if anyone can explain to me what Luke Kennard is trying to say over a coffee I would be most grateful.

gal-dem ‘THE UN/REST ISSUE’ (print issue 4, London, 2019)

For years, I have enjoyed independent and unusual magazines but find it hard to know which ones to try, there are magazines shops popping up with too many to choose from. So, six months ago I decided to take a subscription with Stack magazines who send out a different magazine every month – they do the difficult choosing for me. Septembers issue was gal-dem ‘a publication committed to sharing perspectives from women and non-binary people of colour’. I picked the magazine up with trepidation. I am a white, middle age, Christian, father, husband, man. I wasn’t sure that me and gal-dem were going to get on. In fact, for a brief moment I found myself thinking ‘I might just give this one a miss’. But them it hit me. It hit me that as a white middle age man I have the choice to not read about the perspectives from women and non-binary people of colour. In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably spend the rest of my life choosing to not read anything by women and non-binary people of colour. And then the penny really dropped. Because if I was a women or non-binary person of colour the same would not be true. I would have to read about the perspective of white, middle age, Christian, father, husband, man every – single – day.

And I found myself shocked by this revelation. Maybe you have had a similar revelation.

So I did what I should have done from the start. I read the magazine cover to cover. I read about life, and grief, and stories of struggle, and I found much to enjoy. But more importantly I found much of the human experience that connects us. That as a white, middle age, Christian, father, husband, man my perspective overlaps with women and non-binary people of colour all over the place. And so I will continue to read as widely as possible.

The Pharcyde – Ya Mama (from Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, Delicious Vinyl, 1992)

I was driving my son home from some activity when for some very ill advised reason I mentioned the song ‘Ya Mama’ by hip hop group The Pharcyde (pronounced ‘far side’ for the uninitiated). It’s what’s known as a ‘dis track’. And it has some killer lines (if you like juvenile dis tracks about ‘Ya Mama’). I suggested we put it on for us all to listen to, but I couldn’t find it on my phone. So instead I encouraged him to google it to find the lyrics – parenting note – when you start to hear the words ‘why don’t you just google the lyrics of this 1990’s dis track and read them out to us all allowed’ coming from your mouth, stop. Change the subject, now may be a good moment to discuss the meaning of different swear words or sex or something similarly innocuous. So, obediently, he started to read the words out to us all in the car. Luckily my son is much, much more sensible than me. He started to sensor certain words, but then he stumbled across a racial swear word. Eeeeeeek. Now if I had stopped and thought about it I would have realised that reading lyrics from 1990s hip hop from a group coming out of South Central Los Angeles was never going to be a good idea (look no further than the introduction to NWAs Straight Outta Compton for evidence).

Now, a few months ago I was at a meeting to discuss my community. The idea was to capture the communities needs as part of a regeneration project. But the meeting was not a success. The developer had employed a facilitator who had prepared a series of statements about our council estate. All of them were true. But they didn’t begin to describe our estate. They missed the vitality, the community, the joy that we, as residents feel, living here. They didn’t mention that many residents have chosen to live on our estate for decades and decades because they like it. Yes we could do with better broadband. And it would be nice if the bus service was better. And there isn’t much for young people to do. But I love it. I like my neighbours. I like walking the streets. I like knowing many of the residents. I feel safe.

So here is my dilemma. Much music (and books and you tube videos) from communities much like mine have words in them that are not OK. They have ideas that are not OK. But if I don’t allow my children to hear them, much like the people who came to my estate, they will assume that they are all bad. They will miss the shear, ‘hairs standing up on the back of your neck’ visceral emotion that comes through on ‘Straight Out Of Compton’, the political unrest in tracks like ‘Sound of the Police’ they will be led to believe that there is only bad and miss all the good, just like those facilitators who came to my estate. I’ll be honest, I haven’t played my 13 year old son either of those songs…yet. But one day I hope I will, and I hope he will be able to hold the tension of the good with the bad. That he will find the joy in amongst the rage.

A final thought

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To wrap up this reading week special (which has little to nothing to do with ‘the office’) can I make a small suggestion. For the last three years every time I read a book, magazine, zine, pamphlet, poetry anthology, photo portfolio, comic or dictionary I take a photo of it. Each year I collect these images as a visual record of what I have read. I find it helpful. And it makes it easy to share with others what I have been reading. The photo Montage up the top is a selection of my reading in 2019. I would love to chat about any of them with any of you.

So next week – back to ‘The Office’ and I will try and tackle the topic of Communities of Practice.

Oh and by the way – I have never, in all my life, read a dictionary cover to cover, that was just a joke.

* It has come to my attention that whilst it is reading week in the Faculty of Engineering other faculties have reading week at other times, so if it isn’t reading week, or you don’t have a reading week, apologies, and hopefully you can enjoy the post anyway (and make some time for reading!)

Teaching Stories

Supporting Teaching Assistants

For some students, their teaching assistants are the biggest source of contact time at University. They co-run our labs, co-deliver field schools, lead reading groups and deliver workshops. We depend on them to offset assessment workloads and even cover administrative duties associated with teaching. In effect, they are a vital resource for many taught programmes.

In practice, however, they can be an afterthought of our teaching planning. An ever-growing body of news coverage also details how these workers can be exploited too easily in the big machine of academia. This disproportionately affects our part-time staff and postgraduate students.

When I acted as Project Manager for the recent rollout of four interdisciplinary Bristol Futures units, one of the priorities was to implement ethical principles, transparent processes and clear communications about and for our hourly paid teachers (HPTs). In this blog, I share some of the outputs of this work and suggest top tips to consider when planning your teaching.

Principle: School requirements

In some Schools, there are more PhD students than teaching assistant roles available. In others, the reverse is true. The first principle is therefore to consider the School’s normal operations and requirements for HPTs.

When recruiting PhDs, we requested their supervisor’s approval. That way we could be sure that the student’s studies would not be adversely affected by their commitment to teaching. It also allowed up to check that the School would not be adversely affected.

Principle: Pay

Pay is the second big ticket item. In some Schools, HPTs are paid different rates of pay depending on the type of work they are doing. These rates are highly variable and sometimes don’t reflect the nature of the role.

A huge ongoing issue is how the HPT workloads are mismatched to their allocated paid hours. For example, a HPT who is allocated 10 hours to correct essays that actually take 20 hours to complete is cutting their real wage in half.

Our Bristol Futures units planning mapped out all hours we asked HPTs to complete. This included teaching preparation and delivery, meeting with unit directors, answering emails, and post-unit evaluation.

Anonymous feedback from the HPTs noted that this principle had the greatest impact on their positivity towards the experience. One commented that it was the first time they had felt respected by the University for their teaching delivery.

Principle: Training

Training for your unit should cover whatever type of teaching is needed, such as flipped classroom, webinars, labs and seminars. A good principle is to set aside time ahead of term to check that HPTs know what’s expected of them and have the training to deliver on those expectations. This is especially important for novice teachers.

Things to consider:

PhD students are generally required to undertake the Starting to Teach training session to support consistent quality teaching across all Faculties. But, did you know that some HPTs are paid to undertake this, while others are not? If you require your HPTs to do any training, it’s a good principle to pay them for the time dedicated to this!

Training is not just in support of teaching on your unit, it’s also an opportunity for HPTs to develop their skills (continuous professional development). Another principle is to encourage HPTs to apply to undertake the internationally-recognised teaching qualification scheme via the CREATE Scheme(Cultivating Research and Teaching Excellence). This includes a bespoke qualification route designed for PGRs.

Principle: Processes

The recruitment cycle for HPTs, along with budget planning, can take up considerable academic time. You can check with your School Manager to request additional staff resource to support you, and also ensure that your HPT budget is approved.

To support recruitment of the best HPTs:

Information for Managers on appointing, paying, reporting and managing HPTs:

Once you have your HPTs in place, you also need to ensure that they understand how to claim their hours via ERP. Guidance is available from HR: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/hr/hpt/infohpts/. As most HPTs are PhD students, they don’t always get central notifications on how these deadlines can change at certain times of the year. It’s a good idea to set a calendar reminder for HPT claim submissions that match your School’s monthly financial schedule.

Finally, regular evaluation can ensure that any issues are flagged and addressed. Just as you would ask for unit evaluation, it’s good practice to check in with HPTs about their experience teaching on your unit(s), here’s a template online questionnaire.

Further reading:

DeChenne, S. E., Lesseig,K., Anderson, S. M., Li, S. L., Staus, N. L. & Barthel, C. 2012 “Toward a Measure of Professional Development for Graduate Student Teaching Assistants” The Journal of Effective Teaching 12(1) pp: 4-19 https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1092199

Gardner, G.E. & Jones, M. G. 2011 “Pedagogical Preparation of the Science Graduate Teaching Assistant: Challenges and Implications” Science Educator 20(2) pp: 31-41 https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ960634.pdf

Gedye, S. Winter, J. & Turner, R. 2014 “Inequalities in teaching opportunities for graduate teaching assistants” HEA Annual Conference 2014 / AdvanceHE https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/inequalities-teaching-opportunities-graduate-teaching-assistants

Whitchurch, C. 2013 “Reconstructing Identities in Higher Education. The Rise of Third Space Professionals” (Routledge: New York & London) (ebook https://bris.on.worldcat.org/oclc/821176545)

Ash Tierney

News

Interdisciplinary Teaching

Since antiquity, humanity’s greatest minds have stretched the boundaries of science, art and innovation. Astronomer, philosopher and mathematician Hypatia was revered in ancient Greece. In China, Zhang Heng created the world’s first seismometer in c.130AD, drawing on his knowledge of engineering, meteorology, and mathematics. Renaissance greats like Leonardo da Vinci explored engineering, religion and nature’s forms with equal vigour.

In later periods, more women were granted access to the halls of learning and places of innovation. Actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr guided Howard Hughes to streamline his airplane designs, and set the groundwork for Wi-Fi technology. Katherine Johnson took her linguistic and mathematical skills to NASA to help bring American astronauts to the moon.

In modern times, questioning where lines are drawn and leaping past them has brought us closer to the smallest subatomic particles and stretched us ever further across the solar system. In research, we seek to ask questions never asked and answers never dreamed of. Our funding bids promise to uncover hidden truths about ourselves and the universe.

So why does this endeavour not permeate our curricula? Why does the REF promote the concept of interdisciplinary approaches but the TEF does not? Why do we silo our most daring pursuits away from our youngest and freshest minds?

This approach is nothing new. For most of our history firm boundaries between disciplines didn’t exist. It was only after Western Enlightenment and formalisation of university structures that we began to cordon off learning along clearly defined subject lines.

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary curricula offer our students a glimpse into the possible and the extraordinary. They can add richness, depth and inspiration straight to the heart of our degrees.

Where to start?

Interdisciplinary teaching is often framed within Grand Challenges that affect the globe, such as climate change, technological advancement and inequalities. Some subjects may be considered more “porous” than others, more open to collaboration with other disciplines, but often this is dependent on the direction laid out by leadership. It’s particularly tricky for early career teaching staff to roll out meaningful change towards interdisciplinarity without support from higher ups.

How can we convince colleagues take this seriously?

Ask for mentorship from those who have already forged interdisciplinary paths. A vocal supporter can help change the hearts and minds of those around you.

Securing small pots of money for trying out innovative approaches can get the ball rolling. Anything that is funded also looks more “official” to the wary. Check out BILT grants to get some ideas.

Shake the Education Strategy at them! The strategy promotes a research-rich and innovative curriculum. You can reference the Bristol Futures approach and its key themes of Sustainable Development, Global Citizenship and Innovation & Enterprise. Sections 3.2 and 3.3 of the strategy states that multi-disciplinary breath on these themes helps our students to develop transferable skills and attributes while complementing their discipline and enhancing their global focus. 

What does interdisciplinarity look like for me?

Easy first steps include inviting guest speakers who engage with your degree content, but from a different disciplinary perspective. The Alumni Team maintain a database of graduates who would be happy to work with you. To support this, you can attend cross-faculty events to network with others in a quest to find out where your interests overlap. You can also reach out to city partners from industry and community alike.

Instigate collaborative teaching interventions with colleagues in other disciplines by co-teaching on each other’s units. Taking a shared theme across Schools can enable creative approaches to team-taught programmes (see Caviglia-Harris & Hatley 2004).

You can encourage your first and second year students to take a Bristol Futures optional unit, if it fits with your degree programme structure.

Change the way you use your face-to-face teaching time. For example, ask students to query how they communicate their subject to those from other disciplines, so that they become more practiced in articulating research. You can set aside time for students to use frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to figure out who else might be affected by their subject and how.

You can adopt Nikitina’s (2006) model that notes three approaches to interdisciplinary teaching: contextualising, conceptualising and problem-centring. This can include Problem Based Learning that uses complex real-world scenarios and open ended problems to engage students in research practice. More involved curriculum design is a huge time commitment with many variables. For some best practice in how to tackle this, we suggest you read Klaassen’s 2018 paper that explores worked examples from Engineering. On communities of practice and building capacity, see Pharo et al. 2013.

Some current and future challenges alongside potential solutions are proposed in a 2015 report commissioned by the then HEA (now AdvanceHE). This long read covers the following areas (Lyall et al. 2015):

  • What are the pedagogies that are likely to provide distinctive opportunities for interdisciplinarity?
  • What are the key elements of effective practice that are identified within the literature?
  • For which of these is there a robust evidence base evaluating the effectiveness of interdisciplinarity?
  • What gaps exist in the existing literature in relation to: (a) types of disciplines that are not widely evaluated and for which there is a strong prima facie case that they are high impact; (b) the scope for the existing evidence bases to be further strengthened and developed?
  • What are the principles supporting interdisciplinarity in undergraduate and postgraduate taught education?

There are myriad ways to try something new and it’s up to you how to take it forward.

Typical barriers

University systems can hinder interdisciplinary approaches, but none of these barriers are insurmountable! Finance barriers including arrangements for buyout for any formal teaching across faculties. To address this, ensure you discuss arrangements and budget transfers in advance of teaching planning. Usually this takes place December to February before teaching resumes in the Autumn term. School managers are the first port of call to get these processes in order.

Another hurdle is how well terminology, frames of reference and workloads translate to other disciplines. If your interdisciplinary teaching involves assessment, you need to carefully consider how to support students to succeed. For example, a teaching collaboration that asks for a five-thousand-word essay would be better received by Arts rather than Science students. Different disciplines also interact with their students in more or less formal ways, so you’ll need to check the academic cultural norms encountered or decide how best to challenge them.

By pre-empting these problems in advance, you can put those in positions of influence at ease that the learning opportunity won’t ruffle feathers or risk any of our quality assurance processes.

Final thoughts

If our attempts to include the interdisciplinary are only ever on the periphery of our curriculum that sends a message to our students that we consider it non-essential to their learning. Integrating interdisciplinarity into the core of what we do, into our mandatory units and whole programme planning, means that students will take it seriously and see it as valued.

We can learn from our students and invite their ideas by curating space for the next big eureka moment. Like with the fable of Isaac Newton’s flash of eureka, an apple can only fall onto a great mind if a tree is planted in the first place.

References

Caviglia-Harris, J. L. & Hatley, J. 2004 “Interdisciplinary Teaching” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 5(4) pp. 395-403 https://doi.org/10.1108/14676370410561090

Klaassen, R. G. 2018 “Interdisciplinary education: a case study” European Journal of Engineering Education 43(6) pp. 842-859 https://doi.org/10.1080/03043797.2018.1442417

Lyall, C., Meagher, L., Bandola, J. & Kettle, A. 2015 “Interdisciplinary provision in higher education: current and future challenges” (HEA: York) https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/interdisciplinary-provision-higher-education-current-and-future-challenges

Nikitina, S. 2006 “Three strategies for interdisciplinary teaching: contextualizing, conceptualizing, and problem‐centring” Journal of Curriculum Studies 38(3) pp. 251-271 https://doi.org/10.1080/00220270500422632

Pharo, E., Davison, A., McGregor, H., Warr, K. & Brown, P. 2013 “Using communities of practice to enhance interdisciplinary teaching: lessons from four Australian institutions” Higher Education Research & Development 33(2) pp.341-354 https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2013.832168

Further reading

British Academy 2016 “Crossing Paths: Interdisciplinary institutions, careers, education and applications” (The British Academy: London) Link: https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/interdisciplinarity

Boston University’s “IMPACT: The Journal of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning” https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/3910

Holley, K.  2017 “Interdisciplinary Curriculum and Learning in Higher Education” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education https://oxfordre.com/education/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264093-e-138

Jacob, W. J. 2015 “Interdisciplinary trends in higher education” Palgrave Commun 1(15001) https://doi.org/10.1057/palcomms.2015.1

Miller, V. 2015 “Interdisciplinary curriculum reform in the changing university” Teaching in Higher Education Critical Perspectives 21(4: Curriculum as Contestation) pp.471-483 https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2016.1155549

PhD Thesis by Katrine Lindvig of the University of Copenhagen “Creating Interdisciplinarity within Monodisciplinary Structures” 2017 https://www.ind.ku.dk/begivenheder/2017/katrine-lindvig/PhD_thesis_Katrine_Lindvig.pdf#page=52

Ash Tierney

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Dave Jarman

Spotlight on ‘Voicing Vulnerabilities’

Dave Jarman is a Senior Lecturer of Entrepreneurship at the multi-award-winning Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Dave greets me at the Centre which sits high on the Clifton hilltops in the Richmond Building to reflect on well-being and the value of failing for growth. Large windows bring uplifting natural light into open learning spaces set up primarily for collaborative groupwork – something feels different here.

So Dave, what sort of initiatives are happening at the Centre for Innovation that consider staff and student well-being?

We do a scheme called ‘Random Coffee Trials’ started by NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. The charity got to 60 people and realised not everyone knew anyone anymore. The meeting was half an hour, a formal set-up (so staff knew they had to attend) but there was no agenda to the meeting, they had to invent the meeting agenda themselves. What NESTA found is that staff got to find out what everyone else did. They realised that many of them lived near each other, they had kids going to the same school – they got a great community piece out of this scheme. So, what we do is ask students to volunteer to participate every two weeks, we got 52 to participate in the scheme and I match them together and give them a 2 for 1 coffee voucher to meet and have a chat.

That’s great because I think the University community could benefit from ‘Random Coffee Trials’ facilitating interconnection outside of their familiar friendship networks and also between staff and students.

Yes, because loneliness can be a big issue in academia. Particularly in the masters and postgraduate communities.

So, I am trying to prompt more honest, open conversations about the meaning of success and failure to students and staff within the University. To represent the more vulnerable side of the Humans of University of Bristol rather than fabricate picture-perfect narratives that offer little opportunities for reflective thinking around our personal shortcomings, inadequacies and uncertainties.

There’s a piece here about how we create value for ourselves. Something about people relying on external reference seems relevant to what you are saying. We often ask: ‘Am I doing this thing in the right way?’, ‘Which night out should I go on?’ ‘Should I buy this item?’. We become dependent on people around us to validate and evaluate what is worth doing, then eventually we start to build up a sense of what is worth doing. The problem is we don’t always recognise the value in something until a few years down the line.  When I worked in CV reading, I found that students were typically bad at reflecting on the value in certain experiences, especially the experiences interpreted as failures. You almost need someone to offer that conversational space to help you decipher the value. Yes, that is partly the role of careers. But relying on careers and PDP does not always address the well-being side of things; careers can be, for some students, as intimidating as any other part of the university.

I don’t quite remember to point in which I realised this, but I did have a moment of realisation that I was getting more value from the extracurricular things I was doing than my academic studies. I probably took a cost-benefit analysis, though I definitely would not have called it that back then. When I look back, I think… I got a 2:1 by the skin of my teeth. I could have done better.  But actually, the part of my undergraduate degree which was most valuable for me were the soft skills I acquired, all the activities I participated in. All of these elements were integral parts of my student experience. The University does have a role in helping students get the most out of their experience here in whatever capacity that may be.

Yeah. It’s probably unwise to focus on only one part of our experience and start to think about ourselves as a whole. We are human beings, not study machines producing first-class academic results.

And the employers at the end of the process don’t necessarily want students to be that study machine either. Both you and the employers will value all the other bits about your time at university. I guess the thing Higher Education must consider is that students tend to be unfamiliar with reflecting on the value of certain experiences in their undergraduate degree.

I believe there could be something mutually beneficial in having a little more openness in the pedagogical interactions between staff and students. Where both humans engaged in dialogue cultivate an awareness that we are all negotiating doubt and uncertainty by articulating (where possible) our honest moments of vulnerability in academia. Having someone to reflect on failure with at university seems like a crucial means of mitigating negative, if not catastrophic reactions to academic failure.

Personally, I think being human and building some kind of personable relationship with students is part of being a good educator.

…And some of the most resonating knowledge that has been given to me was in a more open conversational capacity.

I think the idea of sharing stories between both parties is worthwhile in revealing the humans on each side. By and large, the tone I am adopting in this conversation is a tone that I often would adopt in the classroom. Some colleagues are not comfortable with that, some perhaps are too comfortable with that. I think it could be inappropriate to expect all staff to take up this approach if they are uncomfortable. But also, it’s partly about how we set up conversations about success and failure within the curriculum itself. So, for example, creativity naturally has to go through a lot of failure, you are not immediately going to come to the most interesting answer right away. Ninety-nine ways of doing something creatively can at first seem stupid, students must be confident with the possibility of being silly in their learning. Imagine being in a group of friends where you are confident being silly: we know that they will forgive us. Then imagine being in a group of people where you are not confident being silly. The former relationships are really good for us; it is where we build personal confidence. That confidence brings resilience. There is something here about humility, it is not always about knowing where we are good but knowing about our shortcomings and how we might be able to grow from them. I have always liked the idea that wisdom comes when we are prepared to admit what we don’t know about everything with certainty.

How can we help students admit that not everything can be known with certainty?

I do better by offering students multiple ways succeeding and failing. I have set my student’s impossible tasks, so students can’t do it, but we are examiners are interested in the process in how the student’s go about it.

Yes, embedding uncertainty into learning could prepare us more for the inevitable uncertainties the modern working world affords. I really enjoyed your recent blogpost about ‘How to Succeed at Failing’ how far do these reconceptualised notions of success, failure, and negotiating uncertainty feed into your vision for the Centre? Does the curriculum here help students reflect on the value of failure?

We are prompting students to be more reflective in their group work, especially concerning giving and taking peer advice. In terms of self-esteem, having people around who can give you affirmation, constructive criticism, and support feels quite useful.

I have personally not taken too well to criticism and the pressures of group dynamics, perhaps out of a fear of rejection, perhaps out of a fear of failing. What do you think about current perfectionist cultures in Higher Education where acute fears of failure are high among a number of students?

The culture of Higher Education has certainly changed since I was in it. When I came through university 20 years ago a 2:1 was great! To be honest, I worked on the career side of the university for a long time and a lot of employers can sometimes be suspicious of a first-class degree. Given the way that academia has developed, the process doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the workplace. Many employers are happy to see 2:1 plus participation in sports, societies, and student media. A 2:1 shows you are capable. It demonstrates a more rounded set of skills. This is not to say university should only be rolling students out for the workplace – I would disagree with that. But there is a space in university life for students to engage in extracurricular activities and projects outside the classroom. I think the reason we’ve ended up in this situation is because we are dealing with ever greater numbers of students and we tend to resort to quite simple measures and metrics to find solutions. Lots of the important things we could talk about regarding well-being area tend to happen in smaller, more thoughtful, and dedicated educational settings. It is possible to build up better networks in smaller institutions. Having four people in your class can give rise to better networks than socialising with four hundred people in your class. Here, I am going to argue somewhere down the middle is probably the most appropriate response. Equally, academia is good at thinking critically. People like to be right: things are either wrong or their right. People rarely stop and say “Well that is wrong. But it is usefully wrong. I can build on what you just said. Or at least I can not pass harsh judgement. We can thank each other for our contribution and work out how to do something better about it.” Much of the academy is not doing enough creative thinking around failure.

What about you? How do you tolerate your failures?

My creative confidence comes from many moments where I feel like I just make things up as I go along. Also, I recall conversations with colleagues who have experienced serious and disruptive moments in their life. Me and one colleague discussed ‘how do you make the most out of negative circumstances?’ We realised as the conversation drew to a close that we must try and find a positive frame in response even though that can feel quite mercenary. We were saying how it is partly about the fact that we must move forward with our lives – whatever happens. The rest of life does not just stop. Up to a point we do have to be ruthless and get ourselves back up after falling down and keep going. It is not about denying the disruptive things that life brings but trying to pay attention to at least a few positive aspects in our challenging day-to-day lives. Whether we deal with the challenges of bereavement by focussing on the present or by paying attention to the positive memories of a loved one. We do not deny the reality of their death but find a new frame when responding to negative things.

I see the power in your outlook, Dave. I often spend some time in the evening reflecting on moments I welcomed throughout the day. Sometimes the moments can feel seemingly simple like the sensation of a juicy orange on my tongue, or the feeling of connection between me and a friend on an evening spent catching up. The reflective process might not work for everyone, at times recalling the day can feel tedious, but in the long term you feel more secure, more satisfied. So, I will keep that close to me.

Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow, November 2019.

News

What’s bubbling in BILT?

One of BILT’s priorities is supporting research-informed teaching and evidence-based practice at Bristol. A key way we do this is by recognising or providing small levels of funding to individuals and small teams of academics to carry out and evaluate teaching innovations in areas of interest. We brought a group of these project holders, student fellows and BILT associates together a couple of weeks ago to share and discuss their work .

Although each project is necessarily shaped by needs and practices in their own disciplines, some overarching themes emerged:

Evaluating learning & teaching interventions – unsurprisingly enough, given the aim of the initiative, a focus of many of the projects is carrying out a more formal evaluation of new activities, teaching approaches, or spaces, than there would usually be time and energy for. How interventions should be evaluated is a question we’re often asked at BILT, so we’re always seeking to connect staff at Bristol who are involved in structured evaluations of aspects of learning and teaching. (If this is your area of interest, you might want to join our learning community on evaluating large-scale educational change. )

Designing in wellbeing – student and staff wellbeing and supporting students to flourish are specifically the focus of a couple of student and staff activities, but also came up in other areas, such as work on assessment. We touched on how student and staff wellbeing can be embedded across the university through systems thinking and looked at a model of flourishing and languishing students (more on this from Fabienne Vailes soon). We also discussed how the curriculum can be designed to better promote autonomous motivation and engagement, and learning for its own sake rather than to pass the test. Owen, one of our Student Fellows, talked about how students can be encouraged – and can encourage each other – to embrace failure and see it as a learning opportunity in more than just a euphemistic sense.

Helping students develop skills for professional practice – this particularly came up in the context of veterinary medicine, where a number of different approaches were discussed in order to help students develop the more human, interactional, behavioural aspects of being a vet. Some of these were particularly interesting to consider for non-native speakers of English, and neuro-diverse learners. We also discussed work in the French department to reshape teaching to better support students to further develop their language skills.

Students as co-designers and researchers – we’re seeing a lot of exciting work in this space at the moment. Emily, one of our Student Fellows, is improving how we encourage and support our students as researchers, initially focusing on taking a group of Bristol students to present at the British Conference for Undergraduate research. We also discussed an interdisciplinary student research project between life sciences and classics.  Other staff are looking at what comes next after you’ve co-created a curriculum or project with students; how does that student partnering continue? This has led to evaluations co-designed with the students.

Active and authentic learning – these are themes which Toby and Marnie, our last two student fellows are working on, looking at how these can best be incorporated into a range of disciplines. We discussed evaluating spaces and specific facilities for active learning, particularly in the Vet school, and made links (in absentia) with James Norman’s work on spaces and pedagogies for active, authentic learning. There was a lot of interest in the histology card game and how engaging students had found it – the Digital Education Office co-ordinate a group on Learning Games  if you’re interested in exploring further in this space.

Do get in touch if you would like to find out more about any of these projects. If you’ve got a learning and teaching innovation that you’d like to explore and evaluate, you might like to consider applying for BILT Discretionary Seedcorn Funding.


 [SD(oBDoEI1]Link to the collated set of slides from attendees?

Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 7

‘Funding’

This week in my blog I would like to talk about funding. How have I funded my office project? Now, before we go any further, I would like to be honest; I have very little experience in funding. I have never applied for a research grant (although I have been a collaborator on one small proposal) and have had a relatively unsuccessful run of applying for teaching grants. What I have done is successfully apply for a teaching fellowship, and successfully applied for £3k from my school. That’s it.

So, this week’s blog will be short and sweet.

But first a short bit of backstory…

In 2000, I graduated from Nottingham as a Civil Engineer and joined a company called ‘Whitby Bird’ where I designed buildings for three years. In 2003, I came to Bristol as an RA and worked on a research project for three years (whilst also gaining my PhD). In the first year of my contract I supported a member of staff as they taught how to design buildings out of steel and concrete. In the second year I taught the steel component. In the third year- well in the third year I wrote my PhD (which was super tough, especially as my second son was born just months before the final hand-in). In 2006/7, I was employed 2 days a week to teach both steel and concrete and spent my other three days designing buildings. From 2007-2014, I worked roughly 4 days a week in industry and 1 day a week teaching initially steel and concrete design. Then I added another unit on sustainable materials. Then I added another unit on architecture, all on a single day a week.

Just under five years ago I stopped designing buildings (something I really loved) to go full time into teaching, something I loved even more.

So, although I am now in my forties and I have become School Education Director, I have not actually been full time at the University for very long. Most of my career I have been a practising engineer. But more than that, I gave up something I loved to do something I love even more- teach!

Now you understand the background you will hopefully understand the following comment, I have struggled to apply for funding for teaching because as far as I could tell the main item I could get funding for was for my time. As a teaching only member of staff most of my time is spent teaching. So, if my time is bought out that would surely mean less teaching. But I don’t want to teach less, if anything, until recently, I have always wanted to teach more (only a few days ago I was told off for volunteering to teach something)!

So, I have applied two of three times for funding from the University because it seemed like the right thing to do, but I never had any success, partly because I am really quite rubbish at writing applications. And partly because I didn’t really have anything I actually wanted the money for (I often wondered if I could just apply for a large supply of chocolate to give out to flagging staff and students on a Friday afternoon). It just seemed a good idea to apply for funding.

This all changed about 18 months ago when I saw the advert for BILT Fellowships. Working in a team with other academics from across the University appealed much more than applying for a simple buyout from my teaching, so I went for it. I updated my CV, filled in a form, went for an interview and got the post. Which was fantastic. I am now a BILT Fellow for 30% of my time until the end of this academic year.

However, what I discovered was that my teaching load didn’t go down, in fact it went up! This wasn’t by design- a member of staff went on long term sick leave and I covered for them at short notice. But, and this a really big BUT, having the Fellowship did mean that I had a day and a week when I could say I was working on my pedagogy. I was able to block book my calendar, turn down meetings, and sit in coffee shops:-

Plotting.

And reflecting.

And reading papers.

And drawing large diagrams on A3 spotty paper.

And writing endless blogs.

And visiting other universities (where I also sat in coffee shops).

And in this time and space I was able to dream up the office. I think the important thing, which I had not realised until then, was that what I needed was not buyout from teaching, but permission to block book a day a week where I could focus on something else. To buy-in to some quality thinking and reading time.

As part of this time and space dreaming about the project I did then write a funding proposal. It was only to my school and it was for £3,000. It’s not a lot of money, but it really has helped. I have used it to buy calculation pads with my made-up company logo. I have used it to buy books for all the groups. I have used it to buy stationary and folders and boxes to store everything in. And most importantly I have used it to buy everyone their own mug so we can have teas and coffees in the office. I don’t think my application was any better than in previous years, but as this was only school level I suspect that there were a lot less applicants – and so my bid was successful.

And so, my takeaway from this project (and my time as a BILT Fellow especially), is that the most beneficial thing is not the buyout that you get from other things (whether teaching, admin or research) but the buy in that I got for having a day where I can concentrate on pedagogy and developing ideas. That when I stopped focussing on what I didn’t want (to give up teaching) and started to focus on what I did want (to have time to think and read and write) I was more successful. But let’s not get carried away, maybe I was less successful and more content with what I was achieving.

Next week’s episode… is a reading week special. Until then have a good week.