Alix shares more detail about their practice us and how they felt about being shortlisted for a Bristol Teaching Award.
How did you feel when you found out you had been shortlisted for an Award?
It’s always an honour to be nominated and shortlisted. It’s the 4th time in 5 years, but it’s still a bit of a surprise. It’s a good thing and a surprise every time, because you never take for granted that students may or may not take to your teaching. Each cohort is different.
I appreciate the depth that the students went to in their comments. These students are a Covid-19 cohort who were first years in March 2020, and to know that I’ve helped them and made an impact is rewarding. To see them appreciate teaching and enjoying the units has been great.
Can you tell us a little bit about your practice and why you were nominated?
This year it was about a new unit that I created, Philosopher Queens, mentioned by most of the nominators. They responded well to that unit, as it is confronting to how they’ve been thought philosophy in the past. Philosophy is an exclusionary space, designed to exclude women and people of colour. It’s not some neutral category, the list of key thinkers, it’s a decision made by a certain type of person in a certain position of power. Cracking that open about how they’ve been taught and how they engaged with that, we were able to reflect in our experience as learners.
This unit came out of a frustration from my experience as a woman in philosophy. I’m a climate justice scholar, so it’s outside of my experience to teach a unit like this. A lot of the time I was sharing my experience, and students could open up and share their thoughts. It wasn’t a stuffy competitive space, and that helped, along with my honesty about the unit – radical honesty about my lack of expertise – as I was coming from a place of curiosity and passion, not hierarchy. That was a special experience this year, especially as it was the first time I was running it. Together, we created a space filled with frustration, laughter, bonding.
I won’t ever forget this year, students allowed me to try new things. Sometimes they knew more than me, my position came from experience and curiosity. Sometimes they were the expert, and I was honest with them when I didn’t know something, and they helped me shaped my own ideas.
Some of the students had tried philosophy courses before and were put off, some thought they couldn’t ever do philosophy. This unit was more interesting to them because of the women that we read, applied to different contexts, created a new dynamic way to learn. Some (traditionally-assigned) works are inaccessible and others “just click” with students. To them, it was surprising that philosophers could be accessible, and it didn’t mean they couldn’t also have meaningful impact.
It’s been reflected in the assessments too, students are writing on contemporary issues in creative ways, and the marks are really high! Most of them are getting firsts. It’s not just fun, the learning outputs/metrics are really high and the quality is amazing.
Student attendance is also really high because they feel they always “get something out of it”.
What inspires you to take risks in your teaching?
It took a long time to take a risk like this. My confidence has grown enough in ten years. It felt in the case of this unit it was necessary for our students. We’ve had lots of work around decolonising the curriculum, and students reflected on what they wanted from their programme. This unit responds to that need.
It’s sometimes a difficult thing to be a woman in philosophy, so it was also a catharsis to push back against it and discuss it, and create something nice from it. Asking big questions – does my work fit it, am I a philosopher, and intellectual curiosity to read more broadly.
Credit must go to a book called Philosopher Queens, edited by two friends (Dr Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting) who studied philosophy and were really upset by the experience. They crowd funded this book, and we invited them to speak in SPAIS, and we meet them and help them with the book. It’s a super accessible book that serves as a core text.
What would you like to share with others about your teaching practice?
Don’t be afraid of creating a reflective and engaging space, getting off the hierarchy and creating a space with the students. It’s ok to step out of the “serious scholar” space, taking risks and not being the expert necessarily, and being with your students in a more meaningful sense.