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Writing a Dissertation Without the Library: A Guide

It’s getting to that time of year where students usually inhabit the library every day, furiously typing away at their dissertations. But how do you go about writing your diss when there’s no library to go to? Here’s a quick guide with some tips about how to work from home and some useful resources for researching online.

MINDSET

You might have all the books you need, but if you can’t get into the right mindset for working it can be really difficult. Working from home isn’t easy for some people, especially if you don’t have much space. Here are a couple of tips that you could try, which might make working from home a bit easier.

Create a zone: Creating a specific workspace, whether it’s on a desk, a section of the kitchen table or even in the shed, can really help you get into the right mindset. If you have a space that’s dedicated entirely to your work, it’ll help you to focus.

Effective working: Write a to-do list and set yourself goals for your work. This will help you to feel motivated and to give you a sense of productivity and achievement in your work.

Set a routine: It’s good to try and work at the same time every day to get yourself into a routine. It doesn’t matter if this is in the morning, in the evening, or split across the day – everyone has different responsibilities and commitments, but try to give yourself set hours to work, that way, you’ll feel more productive and organised.

Be kind to yourself: It’s a difficult time! If you’re having a hard time working one day, don’t be too harsh on yourself. If you’re really not in the right mindset, consider stopping for the day and trying again tomorrow. Be kind to yourself, you can’t expect yourself to always work as hard as you would under more normal circumstances.

RESOURCES

Whilst we can’t get to the library right now, there’s plenty of ways to get online access to resources. The library website is a resource in itself, so make sure you get familiar with it.

For example, have you ever emailed your subject librarian? Subject librarians are specialists in your subject and can help you with a range of library issues. They can help you to: find and use information; evaluate academic resources; research a topic; avoid plagiarism; reference correctly and use referencing management tools like EndNote. All the subject librarians are friendly and helpful, and they are experts, so they’ll be able to tell you everything the library has on your particular topic. This link will help you find out who your subject librarian is so you can email them. http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/subject-support/

The library also has a super handy tool called ‘Recommended databases’. You can enter in your subject to get discipline specific results, or you can search the list to try and find the particular database you’re looking for. There’s hundreds of databases here that you might not have even heard of. It’s a great way to explore new resources! https://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/databases/

Many providers are now offering extra or free services due to the COVID-19 outbreak – you can find a list of new services we have access to here: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/free/

If you already know what book you need, but it’s a physical copy sat gathering dust in the library, or if the library doesn’t own a copy, you can request them to purchase an e-version. It’s a super easy process to request a book, and if it’ll be useful for others, they’ll probably get it in. To request a book, follow this link: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/suggest-purchase/

There are also plenty of other websites online that can offer you access to books or help you with your research. Here’s a list of some of them:

Oxford Bibliographies https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/ (sign in with institutional login)
Oxford Bibliographies is a really useful tool to find new texts, papers and criticism to read. You can search for a specific topic, such as ‘Victorian Literature’ or ‘Feminism’, and it’ll break it down into a general overview, sub-topics and recommended texts. It’s a great resource for finding new sources.

HathiTrust https://www.hathitrust.org/

Cambridge Core https://www.cambridge.org/core/ (sign in with institutional login)

Project Muse https://muse.jhu.edu/ (sign in with institutional login)

Archive.org https://archive.org/
Archive.org has loads of texts uploaded, it’s particularly useful if you’re looking for published texts pre-1900. Top tip though – navigating archive.org’s search tool is not particularly easy, it’s probably better to search through Google by typing in the book and “archive.org” for instance, search: “archive.org” Morte Darthur

Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/
Project Gutenberg has over 60,000 free eBooks online.

Google Books https://books.google.com/
Google Books might offer you a preview of some pages, and sometimes even the whole book!

Oxford Scholarly Editions https://www.oxfordscholarlyeditions.com/ (sign in with institutional login)

Google Scholar https://scholar.google.com/

Web of Science https://wok.mimas.ac.uk/

MORE HELP

If you’re still struggling academically, get in touch with your personal tutor or dissertation supervisor. They’ll be able to give you some tips about researching from home. Don’t forget, everyone is trying to work from home at the moment, they’ll understand!

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Isobel Hirst

Isobel Hirst is a third year Biochemistry student who completed her year in industry last year. She is one of the students who was selected to represent Bristol University at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research, which has been postponed. I caught up with Isobel to chat about how she feels her experience in industry, and learning through research methods, has helped her in her undergraduate degree.

The first question is, how did you choose the project you were researching?

I applied to it – it was already planned out by my research group that I joined. And I applied to do that project at that place for my year in industry. I basically chose the project because I thought it’d be a cool place to do a year in industry, and then this project was the one I could do with a Biochemistry degree.

So where did you do the project?

It’s called Diamond Light Source and it’s a synchrotron, it’s the UK’s only synchrotron. It’s a little bit like CERN, the Hadron Collider. So it uses electromagnets to accelerate electrons around a big ring that’s hundreds of meters in diameter. And the electromagnets bend the path of the electrons so that they go in a circle as opposed to a straight line. Every time they turn a corner, every time they’re bent, they lose a bit of energy and they release it as x-rays which are really, really bright. Then you can use those bright x-rays to do all sorts of structural things. For example, I was firing the x-rays at protein samples. When they interact with the sample, they get scattered, well diffracted, so you get a diffraction pattern. Then you have a detector which records this pattern as lots of dots and then people, and computers, can do really complex maths with the dots and figure out which atoms were where in the protein sample. In that way you can use the diffraction pattern to find out the structure of proteins. My project was trying to find the structure of one specific protein.

What skills do you think conducting a research project has given you?

Loads! It sounds a bit basic but time management, but next level time management! Because everything’s really time sensitive. If you accidentally leave something for like 40 minutes, that’s supposed to be half an hour, then it doesn’t work. But then also, you don’t really have enough time to only do one thing at a time. I’ve learned how to do lots of things at once. And also to keep track of all those things so that I don’t forget about them.

Definitely being more confident, because at the beginning, I would literally never want to do anything without asking someone ‘Oh, do you think this will work?’ Or ‘if I do this, will it be okay?’ But it’s really annoying for people if you keep doing that. And, they don’t generally know either, they’re like ‘yeah? Probably?’!  So, I definitely learned to just do it. I would always have that gut reaction that I should ask them first and then I’m like, nope, just do it and it might be fine!

Oh, and scientific writing as well. I had to write a report, and I’ve done another research project this year. So now I’ve written two proper, research paper style reports. And I made a poster, and I’ve done two presentations. It’s helped my scientific literacy, giving me chance to talk about my research in lots of different formats.

That’s great! What did you enjoy about your research project?

I really enjoyed most things about it. Where it was, Diamond, because it’s the UK’s only synchrotron, people use it for biochemistry, but they also use it for engineering, physics, chemistry, archaeology, even art history, because they can date paintings with it. And people come from all over the world and from lots of different disciplines to use it. It feels like quite a futuristic and exciting place to be and you are surrounded by lots of different academics all the time. I felt like I was literally in the world of science, which was really cool. I think what was great was all the opportunities – I got to go to a music festival. Diamond had a science stall where people could come and put marshmallows in vacuums and look at little soft toy microbes and things like that. I got to hear Richard Dawkins speak at that festival as well. Sorry, this is not a very science-y response, I more enjoyed meeting all the people!

No no, it’s good to hear all the different benefits of doing a research project. Learning through research methods isn’t just about getting better at your subject, it’s also about gaining different practical and transferable skills. Next question – what challenges did you face in your project?

Ooh, well, actually, I think my supervisor had a plan of what she wanted my project to be when she applied to have a student, but it wasn’t super detailed. She sort of had the beginning of this plan and she thought it would probably work, so I was supposed to be working on one specific protein. But that turned out to be a lot more complicated than she thought. I spent about 9 months out of 12 trying to do the first part of this project. Then in the last few months it actually started working, but that was doing something slightly different. So, for most of my project, the difficult thing was dealing with the fact that everything I tried didn’t work, or didn’t do what I wanted it to do. I was trying to sort of purify a sample of a protein, and I wanted it to be stable and dissolved in the solution. And so I spent months trying to do lots of different things to the protein and to the solution it was in to make it stable and dissolved. And everything I tried didn’t work or it would like work a little bit and then I’d get a little bit further on and then it would not work.

So you definitely learned perseverance then!

Yeah, my supervisor kept being like ‘oh well, this is what real research is like, you’re learning about resilience!’. I also had to get more confident. I had to deal with the fact that things going wrong was making me even less confident. I didn’t really trust that things going wrong is just the way it is, I thought I was doing something wrong. Even though my supervisor was reassuring me, in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘oh but I did that wrong and I did this wrong’. I do think a more experienced researcher would have got results faster, but I was basically doing the project to learn anyway, so it really was fine. I think the hardest thing was dealing with my own insecurities and just keeping going, even when it wasn’t working, and I thought it was my fault.

But you overcame these difficulties?

Yeah, it did turn out to be quite a good lesson because for my research project this year, I was way more okay with things going wrong. And I learned that a lot of the time when things go wrong, it’s because people have made mistakes but people make mistakes all the time and that’s okay. So before, I used to beat myself up a bit when I would make mistakes, but then this year, if I made a mistake, I would just be like, ‘Oh, whoops.’

Sounds like a healthy way to deal with mistakes! Did you find conducting a research project beneficial to your learning, and why?

Definitely. Having done my year in industry and applied a lot of what I learned previously in lectures to real life, coming back and doing lectures and exams again this year, I found the stuff so much easier to learn. It’s much easier to remember because I can actually imagine doing it in a real lab. And it’s much easier to understand why people do certain things. In our exams, we sometimes get given a hypothetical situation such as, ‘this protein of this size has been discovered and like, what do you think it might do? How would you find out what it does?’ That was one of the essay questions I had to do in my January exams, and I didn’t really know what lectures it was supposed to be related to. Maybe it wasn’t any. But I could imagine being in a lab and figuring out what to do and I remembered conversations that I’d had with other people where they were speculating about how to solve certain problems. And I feel I can apply my knowledge a lot better now because I have a bit of a context to do it in. I guess, giving real life context to teaching makes it way more interesting and way easier to remember. I got all of that from doing research-based teaching.

Do you prefer being assessed through research projects or exams, and why?

I think I actually prefer being assessed by exams because I’m better in exams than in coursework, because you just sort of go in and do it. Whereas with coursework, I faff about a lot and the way you end up being assessed for research projects is to write up a report. Maybe if it was a presentation, that would be okay because that’s a one-time thing like an exam. I have been assessed by reports I’ve done for research projects, and I’m glad I did them because the process of writing it all up is quite interesting and fun, and I’ve learned a lot from it. But I think being assessed adds quite an element of stress to your research project, because if you know you’ve got to produce a report for a mark then you’re like ‘oh what if I don’t get the results, will I fail?’. So I think I prefer a mixture. In terms of how well I do, I probably prefer exams, but then in terms of learning experience, then probably both.

Fair enough. Last question – do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share about conducting research projects as part of your degree, or using research projects as a method of learning?

I think that they’re really, really good. I learned more in my year in industry than I did in the first two years of my degree. It’s also made me enjoy my third year more as well because I am better at it. I’m more confident. And also, it was cool to be back at uni again because working full time was hard. I can just go climbing in the middle of the day again! But that’s not about learning. There’s some stuff you have to kind of learn by yourself, rather than being taught or told them. And I think it’s really valuable to be able to learn those things for yourself in the context of an undergraduate degree, where everything is quite safe and there’s a lot of support. Because the alternative is learning those things when you’re in a PhD or a job, and there’s much more riding on it and there’s less supervision. It’s valuable to learn the basics in your undergraduate degree through research projects.

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Jamie Lawson (BoB edition!)

After winding our way through the Hogwarts-like corridor of the Arch & Anth building, we met Jamie Lawson in his office. An Anthropology lecturer, Jamie was nominated by his students to give a Best of Bristol lecture last year. We caught up with him to see what he’s been working on since, as well as talk about his experience with Best of Bristol and his thoughts on giving students opportunities to explore topics outside of their disciplines.

Tell us a bit about what you’re researching at the moment…

Most recently I’ve been researching the Puppy Play community, which is a socio-sexual, queer community of practice – or subculture – involving people who take on the persona and mannerisms of dogs for a period of time. We gathered data over a period of two or so years and we’re currently outputting papers from that. We have had a couple published, and there’s a couple more in the works once I get round to writing them! That’s where I’ve been focusing mostly and we’ll see what happens next.

That’s pretty unique! You must be one of the only researchers looking into that, is that exciting?

Yeah sure! There’s me and my co-author, and there’s only two other papers that are published on the topic by academics working elsewhere. Other than that, nothing has been written about Puppy Play so yeah it’s very exciting to be on the leading edge of something…not quite sure what!

It’s good to be working in something that’s quite niche and I guess that’s reflective of queer subcultures in general. That community has gone through a process from being quite a niche group to be something that suddenly had a lot of public attention, so there’s some parallels there with the way research has played out.

Your Best of Bristol Lecture last year also looked at the LGBTQ+ community. Could you tell us some more about that?

My BoB lecture was called: “Over the Rainbow: A Brief Social History of Queer Resistance”. I took the opportunity to talk about the historical origins of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

I began by talking about the black and brown stripes that have recently been added to the rainbow flag to represent the people of colour who have been left out of a movement that was, to a noticeable extent, started by them. Queer and trans people of colour were integral to the early LGBTQ+ rights movement. The addition of the stripes caused a really strange amount of resistance from within LGBTQ+ groups, particularly from white gay men, although not exclusively, some of whom objected quite strongly to the inclusion of some new stripes.

People were saying things like ‘race/ethnicity/skin colour were never part of the original rainbow flag so why should they be now?’. But that’s precisely the issue. LGBTQ+ people should know very well if you don’t include people then they get automatically excluded – you have to actively push against processes of oppression and exclusion.

My lecture then stepped back to look at the origins of modern homophobia and heterosexism in colonialism and Victorian attitudes in particular to sex and sexuality. This touched on the idea that as European Powers, and Britain in particular, conquered and colonised other parts of the world, they exported certain ideas with them.

This includes white supremacy and the idea of European civilisation being superior, alongside really rigid gender norms that underpin how a lot of European societies function. I was trying to draw a connection between anti-queer and anti-trans rhetoric and racism, all wrapped up in this idea of a colonial world view.

So I guess that’s quite a lot. I covered quite a lot of things. It was fun though, I enjoyed it and people seemed to get into it. It was a nice opportunity to be able to talk about that sort of stuff in a public facing lecture.

Was it something that you had lectured about before?

In bits and pieces. I had a few of my students come along and one of them said that they had seen me talk about components of it in various different lectures over the years but it was really interesting for them to see it all together in a single story.

How different was the experience of lecturing for a much broader audience, as opposed to lecturing students with a view to future exams or assessments?

I’d done a certain amount of public engagement before – I enjoy it very much. This particular lecture was a challenge because it was a mixed audience: students, members of the public, friends and academics. So, it’s a challenge trying to pitch the lecture appropriately for people who have different levels of knowledge or engagement. But it’s always fun, I quite enjoy lecturing without the assessment hanging over the top of everything.

Do you enjoy teaching through lectures? And, as part of that, do you think that lectures are a good way to educate people?

I enjoy a lecture. I think it’s a very powerful way of putting across information. I enjoy giving lectures – it’s not the only way of delivering information for sure. In my time I’ve taken part in many different forms of public engagement including showing some short films based on research, panel discussions, less formal sort of things.

It was really nice and personally very gratifying to have my skill as a lecturer recognised.

Having being recognised for how good your lectures were, has it affected how you’ve given them since?

It was a nice feeling of… validation, is that the word? It made me feel more confident that I’m doing things well, particularly the fact that it was a student-led award. That made it all the more meaningful because students are my primary audience. I think lectures should be engaging and entertaining and informative. And I guess my audience thinks I met at least some of those aims. So it was a nice confidence boost certainly…and I got this nice paperweight!

When we’re shortlisting lecturers and topics for BoB this year, do you think it’s important that we try to ensure the lectures cover topics that people might not be exposed to otherwise, like yours last year?

I guess it’s up to you really, what you want to see portrayed. For me personally, I’m a queer researcher, I work on queer subcultures and I’m a gay man and that’s something that I bring into most work that I do. It comes up in lectures not infrequently. It was nice to assert that identity publicly with the university and the student support behind me, that felt very powerful. I think showcasing diversity and giving minority voices some volume would be a worthwhile aim for the Best of Bristol awards.

There’s a lot of sentiment within Bristol that the curriculum needs to be decolonised, and I don’t think, outside of the Best of Bristol, a lot of students get the opportunity to hear the sort of things you covered in your lecture.

Yeah. One of Anthropology’s big things is critiquing colonialism, so yes I agree, it’s notoriously absent in the university setting, you don’t hear a lot of people at higher levels talking about colonialism, although Bristol has made a lot of positive moves recently, with the work of the Centre for Black Humanities, and the appointment of the first Professor of the History of Slavery. And notoriously or mind-blowingly, and I say this as somebody who was at one point at school in this country, we don’t educate our children about Britain’s role in Colonialism really. You learn about the empire and you learn about the dissolution of the empire and you learn that this thing exists. But you never quite appreciate the systematic violence that Britain was complicit in. You never really learn about Britain’s role in the slave trade; that’s always taught as something that was an American thing.

When I teach that sort of stuff to students here it often comes as a bit of a shock. And I think what I tried to do in my lecture was to demonstrate the impact of colonialism: that the racism which comes directly out of colonialism connects to the heteronormativity, homophobia, transphobia and cis-normativity that comes out of colonialism as well.

The struggles of minority groups are distinct; everybody faces their own distinct lines of oppression, but nevertheless they are connected. Best of Bristol was a nice opportunity to be able to put all of that together for an audience that was outside my degree program so might not have heard that sort of stuff before.

You mentioned that you’re able to bring your identity into the research and lectures that you do. Do you think then that your research is valuable not just to the wider research community, but to you as an individual?

It’s an important question. Another option I could have chosen for my Best of Bristol lecture was to present a talk I’d given before which is a story charting my personal history – how I moved from being a very biologically, evolutionarily focused academic working on sex and sexuality, to much more sociological, phenomenological research. A move from quant to qual, from numbers to interviews, from a really strongly heteronormative discipline to being a queer researcher. That talk is called “How I became a queer Anthropologist”.

I think this is sort of the opposite of what you said to me. Because as researchers we’re often encouraged to leave ourselves out of the work we do. And one of the big things that happened to me was a realisation that my personal identity was inextricably connected to the work I do – I think that’s true of all researchers. People aren’t encouraged to reflect on that.

It’s not so much about what my research does for me, it’s about what I bring to my research.

Would you like more opportunities for students to be able to go and see lectures in other departments?

Yeah, absolutely. Unequivocally yes. I think it would be really lovely to be able to offer some sort of general education for students. Some universities do general 1st years, where you specialise in 2nd or 3rd year on their actual degree course. That’s a nice idea, but at the same time it’s really useful to have students specialise in their discipline. Swings and roundabouts on that.

It would be really cool, for example, if people doing science degrees did learn a bit about colonialism because it’s really important in the way science develops. It’s something we discuss in anthropology – the really complex but very important connections between colonialism and evolutionary theory itself, how those things are intertwined and reinforce one another to some extent.

And vice-versa it would be handy if students could head out from anthropology and encounter all sorts of things. I think being able to approach knowledge for the sake of knowledge would be wonderful. But that is a privilege, having time, resources, money to spare to be able to do that, I’m aware.

The Best of Bristol is a really nice opportunity for students to be able to encounter things outside of their discipline in an engaging lively way, with nothing riding on it either. As you said at the beginning, no exam, no assessment; let’s just talk about some stuff.

Toby Roberts and Emily Kinder – Student Fellows

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Billie Gavurin

Billie Gavurin is in her third year of studying for a PhD in English and History. Billie is on a Teaching Scholarship and has been at Bristol since her undergraduate degree in English and Classics. I met up with her to talk about the transition between undergrad and postgrad, her scholarship and teaching as a PhD student. 

Do you think there’s been a difference with how you’ve interacted with the university as an undergraduate and now as a postgraduate? 

Oh yeah. And it’s been strange in some ways. Obviously, the dynamic between you and the department really shifts as you move into a research degree and start becoming more active in your own research. You’re treated more as a colleague, and it feels really strange to make that shift to working alongside academics who lectured you when you were an undergrad. It’s quite funny, but I love the department and it’s been really nice spending more time here. 

Do you feel like as you’ve become more of a researcher than a student, you’re now more on the same level with the staff? 

Well it doesn’t feel like that exactly, no. I don’t feel like that about my own research yet, but they’ve certainly been very gracious and they definitely make you feel like they respect the work that you’re doing and regard you as someone who is working as a researcher in their own right. 

You say you feel like you’re on a similar level to staff now, does that mean you didn’t feel like you were a researcher when you were an undergraduate? 

I think it’s something that came more and more as I moved through my degree. When I very first started, I didn’t see myself as a researcher at all. And I think probably however I had been treated, I wouldn’t have seen myself as a researcher because I still felt like a kid. But by the time I was in my third year, I had to do a dissertation. It wasn’t optional, because of the way the course was structured at the time. I really didn’t want to do one, but I had to and I think it was actually one of the best things I could have done. I was so glad I was pushed into doing a dissertation because that was the first time I was doing independent, really independent, research and it completely led me into what I’m doing now and I’m so glad that I did it. So that shift really showed me that academia was really what I wanted to be doing. 

That’s really interesting because in certain parts of the university dissertations or extended projects aren’t compulsory. So, for English, when I was an undergraduate, the dissertation was only 6,000 words and it was optional. 

Yeah, it was optional for English then too. The only reason mine wasn’t was because I was a joint honours student and we had to do them. I was really angry at the time that I had to do one, but I’m so glad that I did. I actually do think everyone should have to do a dissertation in English now, after all, it’s an English degree. It doesn’t have to be a long one, but I do think everyone should have to do some kind of more extended research project 

What do you think the other benefits of doing a dissertation or an extended piece of research are? 

I think having the ability to do independent research is so applicable beyond academia. Obviously, academia is not what everyone wants to do, but I think having that ability to go off and do your own research is going to be helpful in pretty much any career that you go on to do. That kind of independence should really be fostered I think. 

Definitely, I agree. So, I wanted to ask you about your teaching scholarship. Could you just explain what it is? 

Yes, I am on a teaching scholarship whereby I teach 3 hours a week across the year. Sometimes that’s front-loaded so that I do more in the first half of term. For example, last term I did six hours a week and now I’m not doing any this term. But it works out as 3 hours a week and as a result of that teaching, my fees are waived. So, I don’t pay tuition fees for my PhD’ 

How much would your fees have cost a year? 

I think just a bit over £4,000 a year, so a significant saving across the three years of the PhD. Obviously it also means I’ve had a lot more teaching experience than you might expect for a PhD student at this stage, which is good, but it has been hard to balance my research degree with the amount of teaching I have to do, it has been difficult. 

Just to be clear – you don’t pay any fees, but you’re also not paid anything else, like a stipend? 

I’m not paid anything else, no. Which means that I am reliant on my family, they are great about it, but it’s something that I have very mixed feelings about. I have mixed feelings about a scholarship that only really works if you have external support, it’s not going to work for every student. And I’m very aware of how lucky I am to be in this position.  

It must put you in a difficult position because if you’ve got your research degree, and then six hours of teaching, you don’t also have the time to have a part time job. 

Exactly, exactly. So, I have very complicated feelings about my scholarship. I love teaching, I really love teaching. And it’s shown me that, and I’ve become much better at teaching than I would have if I’d have had limited experience of it. I love working with my students. But I have very mixed feelings about the scholarship itself, even though I’m glad I’m on it. It’s complicated I think. 

Do you think teaching has helped you to learn more about your subject? 

Yeah absolutely I do. I think because it makes you consider it all in a totally different way, and I think ideally, academia should be aiming to talk about complex things in the clearest and simplest way possible. In order to be a good teacher, you have to be able to put complex ideas into clear and simple language. I think it’s a really good thing to be forced to do. I think there can be a bit of a bubble where things get a bit overly complex in academia, and having to go back to explaining things clearly to people and making sure they understand, is really good for me as a researcher as much as it helps me as a teacher. 

 How about your wellbeing, as teachers? Are you offered support? Because obviously you’ve got a lot to balance. 

I do have a lot to balance. I feel very supported by the English department, I’ve always felt like there are people I can go to. But perhaps relying more on the kindness of individual tutors who I’ve developed a relationship with over the time that I’ve been here rather than a sense that there is a really strong support network through the university as a whole.  I think there should be support specifically for Early Career Researchers who are teaching and the stress that can come from that. Given that so much of teaching is done by hourly paid tutors or people on scholarships like me, there should be provisions made for it really. 

 Do you think that other PhD students who teach are in a similar situation to you in regards to wellbeing? 

I know that others have definitely come across problems of really wanting to support their students when they came to them with more emotional issues, as have I, but we don’t always know how to do that. Obviously, we do have the recourse to say you should see your personal tutor or your senior tutor about this, but sometimes students then say ‘I don’t really know my personal tutor’ or ‘I want to talk to you about this’. And while I’m really happy to do that, I want to make sure I’m in the best position to give them guidance and I think my fellow PhD students probably feel the same in many cases. 

Of course. Finally, what do you think is the highlight of teaching during your PhD, and doing a teaching scholarship? 

I really, really enjoy teaching. I just I love working with my students. I care a lot about what they get from their degrees. And when I occasionally hear from someone that they’ve really enjoyed the course or that it’s been really interesting to them that that’s hugely rewarding. And I really like hearing their ideas. And I just love teaching seminars. I like facilitating discussion and it’s great to give students a prompt and see them take that and go to interesting places. It’s just a wonderful thing to do. 

Thank you to Billie for having this chat with me. It was great to discuss the benefits of extended research and see her passion for teaching. It was reassuring that her department has been so supportive, but there is certainly space to reflect on how the university could better support postgraduate teachers. What struck me the most was how we often focus on students struggling with wellbeing and access to support and can forget that teachers, who are sometimes students themselves too, struggle with their own wellbeing and their responsibility to help their students.  

Emily Kinder – Student Fellow 

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Research-informed teaching and my experience at the University Education Committee

BILT Student Fellow Emily spoke at the University Education Committee last week. Here, she reflects on the discussion about research-informed teaching and what can be done to improve students’ interaction with research.

Recently, I was asked to speak on a panel about research-informed teaching at the University Education Committee. Education Committee, if you haven’t heard of it before, is made up of people high up in Education in the university (think Pro-Vice Chancellor of Education, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellors, Education Directors, etc). So, I was really excited about this opportunity, although a little nervous, because I knew it would be a great chance to get a student’s opinion heard.  

The panel were asked to prepare a short talk on what research-informed teaching meant to us, and how we saw research-informed teaching working at Bristol. There was a good mix of people on the panel: James Freeman, the Faculty Education Director of the Arts, Dawn Davies, from the School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience (PPN), Helen Della Nave from We The Curious, and me.
 

So, what is research informed teaching?  

By definition, ‘research-informed teaching’ (RIT) simply means the linking of research and teaching in Higher Education. There are various other phrases associated with RIT, including ‘research-led’, ‘research-oriented’, ‘research-tutored’ and ‘research-based’. There’s a good diagram called the Curriculum Design and the Research-Teaching Nexus by Healey (2005), which helps to understand how those different elements work.  

What did I say? 

I structured my talk around the student experience. To me, research-informed teaching is about helping students to learn by encountering research methods and by understanding their own work as research, which fits with the ‘research-based’ element of the diagram. I see learning as an active process, meaning that we should teach students how to do things, rather than teaching them a set body of knowledge. I used English as an example – English students aren’t required to have read a certain number of books or know a certain number of texts in order to complete an English degree. Instead, we are taught how to analyse a text, how to think critically about a text, how to develop an argument and how to engage in critical discourse. The course is skills focused, not content focused, meaning English students develop a skillset which can be applicable elsewhere. I tried to stress that research-informed teaching, to me, would mean focusing on engaging students in research methods, rather than content-based curricula.  

What did everyone else say? 

It was interesting to see how everyone else understands research-informed teaching, from their different academic backgrounds and their experiences of teaching.  

James Freeman spoke about how he feels the prime function of research is ‘to seek’, as the word once meant, so students are actively involved in seeking answers each year and presenting those answers to their community. He also talked about ‘Arts in the Age of Data’, which means encouraging Arts students to develop data skills in order to answer their questions, putting a research method into practice in the context of their own work.  

Dawn Davies discussed how the teaching in PPN is usually ‘research-led’, as staff use research findings and primary literature in their teaching, although this mainly occurs in 3rd and 4th year. These units are intended to link with what the departments are researching, in order to create a link between staff and students and to make use of research expertise. Dawn also raised the issue that there is a big jump to 3rd year, a problem recognised across the faculties, as they found that students didn’t have the skills for designing experiments well. She explained that the problem is that students are taught in a recipe style, they are told exactly how to run a lab and therefore don’t learn how to deal with new problems or designs. One of the ways PPN is working to solve this is by teaching the students the basic lab knowledge, and then getting them to design their own experiment using that equipment, which encourages them to develop their problem-solving skills. In this, they are hoping to increase the research-based aspects of their courses. 

Helen from We The Curious, told us about how her role is to get more of the public involved in scientific research. She told us about their rebrand, as some of you might remember We The Curious used to be called @Bristol. Their new name is part of a broader culture change they are aspiring to around science discovery centres, working to promote curiosity and to value people’s questions, rather than functioning as a didactic science museum. Helen told us about how she hopes to change how ‘Public Engagement’ works with researchers, as she often finds that researchers just include the public in their last step of research, dissemination. Instead, she hopes that researchers can work more closely with the public throughout that process, engaging them in the research earlier. This model could also be used with students, to get them more involved in the research of their supervisors, rather than just sharing that research with them once it is completed. 

The panel then answered questions and we had a discussion with the rest of the committee. Hillary, the UG Education Officer, made a great point about degree timelines, arguing that we needed to look at how research capability is built throughout a degree programme, rather than just suddenly thrusting it upon students in third year. Another significant issue was raised about how students are ‘inducted’, a lot of thought is put into how students are inducted into the university in general, but how are we inducting them as researchers? How is the transition from A-Level to degree being dealt with? It was clear that we need to consider the degree journey as a whole, rather than overloading 1st years with knowledge and then expecting them to be active researchers in 3rd year. 

Reflections on the discussion  

I think the panel-speakers all raised some really interesting points about RIT, and they were met positively by the rest of the Education Committee. I think that Dawn’s points about teaching students the basic skills and then encouraging them to design their own lab experiments links well to my own points about the skillsets taught in English, again placing an emphasis on the ‘how to’ rather than the ‘what’.  

However, I felt that a lot more questions than answers were raised in the discussion, as many of us could point out issues and flaws in the system, but it was harder to think of solutions. Hillary’s point about degree timelines really resonated with me, as I feel that students need to be engaged with research far earlier in their time at university, in order to consider themselves as researchers and to understand the skill sets that they are building. The fact that Hillary, a recent graduate, made such poignant comments really got me thinking about the student opinion. It is great that this issue was raised at Education Committee, but surely as an issue to integral to the student experience, it is vital to get some student feedback. I am really keen to organise student focus groups, to discuss the Healey Nexus and how they feel research-informed teaching could impact their studies. If you’ve read this blog and have some thoughts about research-informed teaching in your department, especially if you’re a student, please drop me an email (ek15725@bristol.ac.uk)!  

Next steps… 

Speaking on the Education Committee has really inspired me to be involved further in developing research-informed teaching at Bristol. It was great to talk with other academics and staff who also feel passionately about engaging their students in research more, and it was encouraging to see how many want to affect change. The next step will be working to see how we can bring research-informed teaching into the curricula and how it can impact and improve students’ experience at university. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on how it goes!