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“The value of authentic activity is not constrained to learning in real-life locations and practice, but that the benefits of authentic activity can be realized through careful design of Web-based learning environments.” – Lombardi
Well, I can safely say this is not how I thought I’d be spending my year but the quest for authentic learning continues. As we all struggle to get our learning and teaching online, I’ve created a handy guide on how to do authentic learning and teaching via the magical medium of the internet. It bears noting that although many of us would rather return to life, as usual, this is a time of considerable opportunity to change the way we teach and learn. The traditional format of lectures and seminars has been broken down and if ever there were a time to try something new, it is now.
Real-world relevance is critical for authentic learning, but it is important not to fall into the trap of making everything about coronavirus. Now is an excellent time for using studying as a form of escapism. However, it is also an excellent time to be teaching about adaptability and how to manage a crisis.
Using stakeholders has become tricky and nearly impossible. With many organisations furloughing their staff, now is not the best time for partnerships but to give an authentic experience, stakeholders can be imaginary. This can be anything from an imaginary business giving them a task, or more broadly how would they tackle an issue and who would it affect. For the unit Managing and Evaluating Development, students usually partner with NGOs, but now are being asked to create their own business plan to start up their own organisation. This allows students to create their own value and assess what is important to them and wider society.
Working collaboratively is something that is now more crucial than ever. Social distancing can be lonely and feeling disconnected from your peers can be very isolating. Giving students an incentive to have regular communication with their classmates, be that via video call, normal call or even email, is an excellent way to not only improve their collaboration skills but also to maintain a sense of community. Also; as online communication is increasingly looking like the future of work, collaborating via online platforms is a crucial way of improving these skills.
It is also crucial that while the contact hours have been limited that students are given the opportunity to feedback and that lecturers can monitor their progress to ensure that students are sustaining their levels of investigation. The Social Innovation Programme run by Bristol Hub has been doing this using a Gantt Chart and tools such as Trello. This is a way of including teaching soft skills and letting students visualise their progress, along with making sure that students are continuing with their work even if they are away from campus.
Although lockdown has it’s challenges, it provides students and staff alike with a lot of time. This time can be useful for reflection: what is going well, how do students feel their course has been affected, what could be improved. Coming out of the Easter holidays, students may find it helpful to consider what they have already learnt and how this can be applied to the final term of the year. By allowing opportunities for continuous reflection, students are placed in a position to make more informed choices about their learning, along with communicating the value more effectively. In other words, authentic learning gold.
Given the unusual circumstances of the entire year, students may feel inclined to stick to the reading list like glue as it’s no secret that many students are driven by their academic results. However, now is not the time for conventional teaching, and by encouraging students to look at multiple sources and perspectives outside of normal reading can help to rekindle students love of their subject, in a time where they are probably not thinking about how History of Art has changed their life. By encouraging them to find sources and perspectives which students have found themselves and are therefore likely to be genuinely interested in, it can also help to cultivate a good online discussion- students (and staff) may be nervous in online group discussions so having something that they have found can be a useful starting point.
The final way in which you can help to make online teaching more authentic is by asking students what they want to be learning. What do they want the rest of the term to look like? Are students more interested in mimicking traditional seminar formats online, or would they rather have asynchronous teaching using videos and podcasts? By asking students how they want to learn, it allows them to reflect on their learning process and think about the subjects they are particularly curious about. It also shows an acceptance that this is not business as usual; not everything about online teaching will work for every student but it is crucial to find a format that allows everyone to engage, even if it’s not in a way in which they are used to.
I hope that this has been helpful, or at the very least food for thought. I would love to hear from students and lecturers alike, how would you change online learning and teaching? What would work for you? What do you want from the final term of this year?
Bristol is fortunate enough to have a large population of international students, many of whom come from mainland China. Given the new form of online teaching, this presents some significant challenges in terms of the firewall. Platforms such as Skype, Zoom, Whatsapp and Google are all blocked meaning that online teaching can become extremely challenging.
The difference in time zone is a significant challenge and as many of the instant messaging services are blocked, sometimes this calls for a more staggered approach to teaching. Asynchronous teaching has many benefits; as your time is not spent giving lectures, it frees up some space for feedback on individual or group work.
For asynchronous teaching discussions, there are two key ways that students can participate beyond both the firewall and the time zone. Mini-podcasts are an excellent way that students can practice speaking while constructing an argument and still engage with the reading material. Using their phones or online voice recorders they can use audacity to merge and edit a podcast that you can listen to and give feedback. Set a time limit to ensure that they give clear arguments (and so that lecturers have enough time). They should be able to email this to you via Outlook, which is not currently blocked in China.
Videos are another way to teach in a way that allows students to speak and share their point of view. This can sometimes be harder to share due to the size of the file but can allow for more innovation. Some universities have used videos to gamify asynchronous teaching by creating mini competitions. Who can make the best argument using three props? Explain the reading using an animation or infographic.
Don’t be afraid of voice notes!
Many people already use voice notes in place of text. In a time of isolation, hearing a voice can make a big impact both on a students learning experience and their wellbeing. Having an endless influx of emails can be overwhelming, especially when there is such an influx of bad news. Hearing a familiar voice helps to connect to the material, as well as being a nice change of pace.
Chinese social media
China has a range of social media that is free and downloadable in the UK. WeChat is by far the most popular and will allow you to talk to the vast majority of your Chinese students instantaneously. It also has video and call functions so it will also allow for meetings if students want one on one meetings.
Understandably, not everyone is willing to download WeChat onto their phone but in terms of immediate communication, this is one of the easiest forms.
Tencent Video- If you’re wanting to share video content, Tencent Video is the king of Chinese video streaming. It works in essentially the same way as YouTube but has the added benefit of fun interactive games.
Ask your students
Although the information provided here will give a variety of options different people will want different things from their learning. Sending out a poll is a good way to decide what works for the majority of students and they may have ideas that work for teachers and students alike. In a time of crisis, it is important that students feel like they are being heard so offering avenues that they can reach out is a crucial way to make sure teaching is effective and students feel valued, even if they are 10,000 miles away.
Keir and I met in a design studio in the Centre for Innovation. Throughout the interview, staff and students alike would come in to fetch or print things and everyone knew each other, giving the centre a real sense of community. This was particularly fitting as we went on to discuss how he teaches community and participatory methods, as well as the effect of dyslexia on his work and his unusual and colourful journey into lecturing.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you lecture on and what your teaching style is?
Here at the Centre, I teach a few different units with slightly esoteric names, ‘Being Human’, ‘Past, Present and Futures’ and Live Client Briefs. My official title is Lecturer in Design Thinking, but it’s closer to being a lecturer in Design Research. My teaching focuses on participatory methods of research and design. So how you get other people to become researchers and participate in the process that you’re creating or get them to determine the process themselves. In my wider work, I create spaces for people to participate in. That could be research, that can be sound system parties, it can be dance classes, it could be music events, it could be art projects, it just depends on the context, really. What I teach at the Centre is how we work with other people and how we work in groups to develop ventures in different ways. As part of this, I teach innovation. It’s hard to define innovation as it’s contextual and there are so many models out there. We teach our students how to develop an innovative approach to the world and what we mean by innovation. To be innovative you need to be able to map social contexts, situations, phenomena, in a way that allows us to model it, that allows us to disrupt it or to support it.
I teach project-based work. Our first-year citizen science project gets to go and work with groups of local people in nature reserves around Bristol to develop a participant lead science experiment. For their other project students have to create a venture that creates value for someone or create an intervention that brought people into social interaction in the public space. This enables them to engage with the city as a context for research and consider how we make value for people. Underlying my engaged teaching is quite a lot of social and design theory, that comes from a lot of different places relating to my background.
So, how does your background affect the way you teach?
I’m a bit of a weird fish. I’m dyslexic and didn’t do well in assessments at school. I got eight GCSEs, no A-Levels. I did an art foundation which meant I could get into university using a portfolio of my work. I did a fine art undergraduate degree, and then was a technician and building services staff at the fine art department I studied in. I also started my own business doing videos, and a reggae sound system that’s got the longest running Reggae night in Europe. We toured and do a lot of festivals and still do. I did a Masters in Fine Art which was paid for by the AHRC with living costs. When I finished I taught on the Masters for a couple of years part-time. At the time I lived in a warehouse in a rough bit of Birmingham, where we had a gallery, and did big art parties with giant papier-Mache animals props and costumes that turned into a night called DJ sexmachine and super best friends which we toured, which was like a really campy draggy drunken night that we used to do weird performances with.
I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I did my art foundation, which changed everything for me. I didn’t get support but it changed how I saw myself and how I work. Before my PhD, I was doing a lot of work as an artist for galleries, a lot of playwork, performance art and a lot of playwork with kids with special needs. Through the sound system and my playwork, I started to work with a group called Tourette Hero who develops creative projects that challenges societal norms of disability. Jess Thomm who runs Tourettes Hero has Tourette’s and she uses her experience of Tourettes to create work. We worked together on a bunch of projects including stuff at Tate Modern and Tate Britain and lots of community and play settings around London.
At the same time as doing any academic stuff, I am also still a practising artist. This year I had a show at We The Curious with our arts collective. As a collective, we’ve been going up to the Arctic north of Norway to do an art project in an old fishing village that has the first industrial fishing processing plant in the world. Our collective is made up of a team of six artists, we’ve been doing it for 4 years. The reason I mention this is that projects like this inform and structure my teaching. In this case, we developed a project based on this for my first year and post-graduate students. It allowed us to draw on staff from the museum and use We the Curious as a venue for our annual student conference. I’m not strictly one discipline. I’m not strictly a computer scientist, I’m not strictly an artist or a designer. But all of those things feed into my practices for innovation. My work is about being self-motivated, overly enthusiastic, curious, and finding ways to help other people to learn and play.
Side note: I highly encourage readers to visit Kier’s website if you want to see more of his work, which you can find here. It’s a bit of an experience.
My question is, how do you bring those skills into teaching; you’ve obviously done a really wide variety of things outside of academia.
For me, there are three components to my work: research, practice and teaching. They are dependant on each other. I can’t teach if I’m not doing current research. I can’t do research and make art if I’m not teaching. With the two major shows I’ve done in Bristol over the last two years they became projects for my first years and master’s students. Another example is the oral history project I did for the M Shed museum, to showcase people involved in the Bristol music scene over 70 years. I worked with a second year to create portraits for the vinyl copies of the interviews I recorded. This project allowed us to draw on the museum staff to teach and provide feedback throughout the student’s projects. The first project asks our students to use the recordings I created and present issues that arose from them for an audience outside of the museums typical demographic.
In terms of my actual teaching, I see it as a performance. That is I use the skills I learnt through contemporary dance, capoeira and performance art to engage and include all of my students in the projects I’m passionate about. I never had lectures or seminars or university and never taught in that way till I started lecturing outside of art and design. What I find interesting here at the university is that the ‘flat teaching’ we do is a new, innovative form of teaching. For me and this is how I‘ve always done it. I see my teaching approach as the same for young kids with special educational needs and masters students. I have an empathic approach that creates a space to learn that is created based on the lived experiences of my students. I am also academically rigorous. I can be quite pingy and I feel sometimes I come across as quite over-enthusiastic, and a bit ditzy. But actually, the skill is to be ‘ditzy’ and enthusiastic to gather all the information and get involved in the world and then refine that into something useful within the structures of academia or creative practice. Whether that’s a narrative, an exhibition or an academic paper.
As someone who’s neurodiverse and disabled, I struggled at school, even though I’m from a fairly privileged background, white middle-class academic parents, I really struggled. I had people who supported me and helped me get through when I didn’t think any of these systems would work for me and I feel like that’s now my responsibility to do that for other people. Uplifting other people, right? The first thing I do in my first lecture is say that I’m dyslexic and I’m really overenthusiastic and at times very silly and that’s what makes me, me. I do this at the beginning of every term and I bang on about it a lot. If I spell a word wrong when I’m writing on a board, then I tell them to just imagine a little red line underneath it because I don’t care. What it does, is it draws out people with disabilities to come talk to me if they want to, to make that kind of thing possible.
I think a lot of people when it comes to something like Bristol university is scary, right? If you’re coming from a non-public school background or, you know, you don’t necessarily have a privilege that some students do. It’s why I wear casual clothes I wear because it gives that sense of not being “You have to be proper now because you’re in university” right? And not getting rid of that curiosity and joy and experience that drives students to come to uni. I’ve had students with working-class backgrounds say, “I feel so unconfident, everyone else knows what they’re doing, they know how to be and how to dress”. I think it’s really important to create a space where they don’t, they can feel that their experiences are as valid as anyone else’s.
One of the things I’m looking at is elements of Bristol University engaging with the wider community, which on your website, you do quite a lot of. Is that something that you feel like affects your students in a positive or negative way?
Yeah, so most of the stuff we do is based around engagement in communities, and also problematizing the idea of communities right, so ‘what is a community?’, ‘who makes a community?’. I think I lead by example and this comes back to the importance of having a practice while teaching. The work within Norway was working with a refugee centre that’s up there, here we worked with communities in Avon mouth, for the music project we worked with old punks, trip-hop stars and local residence. There are issues that have to be addressed so that any ‘community based’ work is conducted without harming the students or participants. I’ve just done a project for our PGT students with Universities theatre collection. The issue was none of our students had ever done work relating to participatory arts, theatre or live art. They’ve never done events and they’ve never done collections because our masters are drawn from a huge range of different countries and disciplines. The problem of doing participatory, engaged work is if I’d sent out students straight away to talk to communities and experts based on the collection, they could have made some really serious mistakes. There’s that adage of ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’. I kind of think it needs to be the opposite because you can’t do that in situations with community groups where you can hurt people through unintended consequences of the way we work as researchers.
Fundamentally if you want to work with a group of people you want to find out about them, you want to see how they do things and you potentially want to help them to make change. You can’t just chuck a lot of students out there. So, what we have to do is create some sort of a structure for them to do it. What we end up doing, is creating structures that allow them to do some participation and work with some communities and also think about their own communities. For me it’s a craft as much as it is a discipline in that you have to do it, you will never be perfect and you have to adapt it every time you do it. There are certain core skills you need in terms of personality and talking to people but there’s also a set amount of theory you need to understand in terms of power relationships, but also realising your limitations, you’re never going to be able to do it perfectly. To get students to do that’s incredibly tough, I think but it’s incredibly valuable and it’s what we try to do over the four-year course.
Other than the specific community-based skills that they gain, do you see the work they do affecting other parts of their learning?
Oh yeah. I think there should be more recognition that the university is part of the community, that it’s within the same social structures. This is the danger with some of this stuff sometimes, that you end up with this kind of deficiency model of going to work with community groups. I think what I’m trying to say is that I think a lot of our students have that idea that you’re going to go to somebody to fix them. Whether that’s Barton Hill or northern Nigeria, it feels like you know, we’re going to help these people as opposed to this notion of there’s an exchange going on. The deficiency model says you have a problem only we can fix. What we promote is going to work with people you say ‘we are here, we have certain skills and experience that you don’t, you have skills and experiences we don’t, let’s create something together’.
In their professional lives, students are not going to just do what they’ve learnt in their discipline. As a physicist, you are part of a community of other physicists and scientists, you have funders, and social and cultural issues to deal with. You have to talk to you have to communicate your ideas, you have to work in a lab or office, you have to, you know to negotiate with the world. There’s all this stuff that still exists if you’re a physicist or an actor. The work you need to do with others is not separate from the discipline.
The benefit for our students in working with ‘communities’ outside of the university is that it gives them the skills to practically go and talk to people and do things that aren’t just in their comfort zone within the university. And it offers them a huge body of evidence, skills, data, tools, methods, experiences, to build their own practice from. Its more than our students feeling good about and doing socially engaged work with people. The work they do with people outside of the university becomes an exchange, and it should be an exchange.
I have one more question that we’re asking all of the BoB lecturers this year: What do you feel the most positive change to learning and teaching that we can make at University?
Make it free. Make the whole thing free and don’t base it solely on UCAS entry.
I am a student with considerable climate anxiety. I worry constantly about how my own actions could possibly lead to the demise of human society and am often left apoplectic with rage at the seemingly blasé attitude of governments around the world, and occasionally that includes my own university. Although it is a significant accomplishment that Bristol was the first university to declare a climate emergency, I often look around at the computers that won’t turn off or the enormous amount of plastic and paper wastage at Freshers Fair and think, is this enough? How could the university be doing more?
Although this conference did not solve the climate crisis, it was a great relief to see a variety of staff from an array of areas expressing their concerns and thinking of possible solutions. Not to mention, the guest speakers from universities in South Africa offered an insight that we should be considering significantly more when talking about the climate crisis: we are not the ones that are bearing the brunt of the climate disaster. Our university does not have droughts or 4 hours on then 4 hours off of power. You thought the strikes were bad? Imagine only being able to use the internet half of the day. Professor Coleen Vogel illustrated this beautifully and although her talk did not soothe the anxiety, it did contribute to the sense of urgency that characterised the day and brought a universality to the crisis. This conference demonstrated to me that the university not only has to mitigate these consequences for itself but has a responsibility to inform students about how their actions impact people across the world.
One of my favourite speakers of the day (other than one professor who sang and gave us a deeply needed wake up 3 hours into the conference) was Professor Keri Facer, who spoke about ‘living on a lively planet’. What really struck me about her talk was that it went beyond the doom and gloom approach to climate change, lecturing on how we need to reexamine our relationship with the planet and each other. For the first time (to me) it presented climate change as an opportunity for growth and learning, rather than a signifier of the apocalypse. I often feel that climate change can be disempowering, particularly for young people, as it undeniably presents some giant obstacles. This outlook, however, is less than useful as it means that every step in the right direction feels like dropping a stone into a void. Keri’s lecture demonstrated a different approach and climate change finally felt like something that could be a learning process for the human race.
The other speakers were absolutely fantastic, open and urgent but also presenting options for how to move higher education forward. It was incredible to have staff from such a wide variety of backgrounds, meaning that conversations were extremely interdisciplinary and each talk brought about a wide variety of responses. The talks themselves also included an ‘arts-based approach’, including creating a transformative engagement toolkit to building lasting partnerships with civil society. Hearing this side of the argument was refreshing, as the science-heavy focus has often felt like it leaves fifty per cent of the population in the dust, not to mention that the inclusion of community engagement already had me absolutely invested.
However, although I enjoyed the day and was grateful to be part of the conversation I couldn’t help but think: Is this how we treat an emergency that is causing half of Australia to catch fire and kill over a billion animals? That’s caused three cyclones in Fiji in the past two weeks alone? This event demonstrated to me that the university needs to take its role as a world leader seriously but also that there are impassioned academics who are trying to take that role. One of the professors said that climate change presented an opportunity for academics to use the social capital we have been afforded and to use it to create change. We have the opportunity to truly lead the charge in the fight against climate change and for that, we need drastic action.
Hussain Abass is a third-year aerospace engineering student and president of the Islamic Society (or ISoc). We met in the bustling SU Living Room for a poignant discussion on his experience of Bristol University, and how engagement in student society supported him taking risks.
So, what has your experience of Bristol been like so far?
It’s been very up and down. At first, when I came here I struggled, I was living up in Stoke Bishop and feeling really isolated. Then in second year I became involved with ISoc and the BME Network and I started to engage in student life. That was the turning point for me. I guess I started to see Bristol as this amazing community of young people where I could really feel at home. This is my third year here and Bristol is starting to turn into more of a home. It’s going to be hard to leave when I graduate!
How did you get involved in ISoc and has it changed your experience of Bristol?
I don’t know really, last year especially they needed help so I started getting involved in that, and then suddenly it was like ‘here’s a chance to lead’ and I said ‘Alright fine!’. I did the election and won the vote and said sure, why not. For me, it’s weird because you would think that if you join a religious society and especially if you’re leading it, that you end up surrounding yourself with people who are the same as you. Actually, I found that this year is the year where I’ve made connections with people from all backgrounds, all identities, all nationalities. Because now I’m involved. I’m meeting people from other groups, other societies and people in the SU. So I’m meeting people completely different from me. I mean, yeah, I don’t know how many new Muslim friends I’ve made this year and it’s so counterintuitive! But it’s been an amazing experience because like you just end up broadening your understanding of where people come from, why they have these things that they do, why they have the backgrounds that they do and that sort of thing. It’s definitely made university a lot richer for me. Originally I really wanted to go to Imperial to study, but now I realise I never would have had the opportunity to meet the people I’ve met and be involved in the things I’m involved in now. Bristol is cool!
So we’re involved in pretty much all aspects of what it means to be a Muslim student at Bristol. Whether that’s from our faith background or whether that’s from on the ground realities of what it’s like to be a Muslim in Bristol. We’re involved in organising group prayer sessions, educational activities to do with faith in the contemporary world and generally trying to make the experience of Muslim students here in Bristol more enjoyable. Working closely with the Students’ Union, working closely with university outreach and diversity teams. We’ve been done a lot of charity work during Charity Week and you always see ISoc making bags of money every year!
Also focusing on the representation of Muslim students we’ve been obviously we’ve just come out of Islamophobia Awareness Month and we’ve worked closely with top academics in the field, for me personally it’s been an amazing experience actually working with people who are the top brains on issues like Muslim identity in this country. But also it was about celebrating our culture and it’s been a very enjoyable experience.
Very impressed you manage to do all that and an aerospace degree!
I think what I’ve learned is that actually the more you get involved at uni, the more your studies benefit. You find a lot more value and confidence in your being here. You meet people who help you. One thing I’ve found is that when people realise that you’re actually engaged in something which is beneficial for the wider community of students here, then they are more willing to help you out with your work and anything you’re struggling with in life.
So you mentioned that when you first arrived you felt quite isolated. As you became more involved in university life, have you felt more supported to take risks?
Definitely, I think that becoming more confident in your identity means that you are more willing to take risks. Naturally, when you have a clear support network there are so many facets of your life to fall back on in case something doesn’t go well. I think that’s influenced the way that I have approached my being visible at university. In my first year, you know people would know I’m Muslim but I tried to do that thing where I’d make it very clear that “I’m Muslim but…” I actually came to realise that first of all no one cares. Do you know what I mean? It’s that cliche that you once you realise how little people actually think about you, you stop caring about what they think. It’s okay to be more forthcoming in your identity.
I think that’s influenced the way that we’ve approached Islamophobia Awareness month this year. So actually, we’ve been a lot more politically engaged and we’ve spoken about the effects of government policy in this country. Racist policy like Prevent which is the government’s strategy to counter extremism and how that has affected students of colour, but especially Muslim students. We’ve had discussions about how hate speech can masquerade as free speech. The argument of free speech is often used to hide the fact that what people are saying is rooted in racism. So yeah, definitely being more secure has definitely influenced my willingness to take risks.
That’s a really interesting answer, I think it’s a common student experience that they feel like they need to edit themselves in some way to make themselves more palatable to their peers.
Although I have to say, one thing I learned is that the student movement has always been a space where minorities have felt welcome, and it’s always been a very important tool through which minority groups have felt empowered. That’s something which we don’t get in all spaces.
So it is a testament to the students of Bristol, especially people who are more active in university life, especially some of the more political groups in the university. One thing that I came to realise is that there’s nothing to be shy or embarrassed about in my identity. When people understand, first of all, what a beautiful faith Islam is, and also the commonalities that Islam has with other religions and other faiths. There is so much beauty in all religions and once you realise that people, especially young people, don’t necessarily chime into racist Islamaphobic narratives, then you’re more likely to feel welcome. That’s pretty nice.
So, I think my last question is what do you feel like the biggest risk you’ve taken is? And why did you choose to take it?
Within the engineering department, I’m involved with a lot of super-curricular activities, so actually working on actual engineering projects. In my first year of university, I didn’t do well in my studies and part of that was because I felt quite disengaged with university as a whole. So I sort of took it upon myself, I was like right, I need to fix it up. So I started getting involved in a lot more engineering projects, which if I tell you about a lot of people would be like, how the hell did you manage to source that for yourself? So after my first year, I had an opportunity to work on aerodynamic analysis for this British Touring Car Championship racing team. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a World Record holding jet suits manufacturer, designing a wing for them. I’ve had a lot of opportunities because I’ve managed to step out of my comfort zone. After my first year I kind of felt like a rubbish student, I thought I’m just gonna be a really rubbish engineer. So I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and went to work on these crazy projects, which have put me in contact with some amazing people and taught me some amazing skills.
ISoc itself is something that has taught me a crazy amount of skills and really helped push me out of my comfort zone. So for instance, engaging with the SU has always been something I found difficult. I felt a little bit nervous at first because I always saw it as there’s an in-crowd and there’s us on the outside. But now I’ve realised the value of engaging and showing people your worth and people really pick up on that. I have a lot of skills that I didn’t know I had. If six months ago you told me to do public speaking in front of an audience of 300 students in a debate in the Students Union, I would have thought it would be crazy to be involved in that. But now that’s the kind of stuff I’m engaged with.
Thank you to Hussain for coming to speak to me (on a very miserable day). You can find out more about the Islamic Society here.
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