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With their graduation on the horizon, BILT Student Fellows Corrie Macleod and Phoebe Graham reflect on their collaborative project, centred on empowering students to impact their learning and teaching at the university.
Humans of Bristol University
The main aim of our BILT project was to bridge the interpersonal gap between academics and students, a rift often caused by an educational environment dictated by high academic workloads, large student numbers and often low contact hours.
We devised ways of tackling this kind of alienation at university; we decided to create a fun and informative platform that students could access in order to get to know their fellow learners and teachers alike, beyond the boundaries of their own department.
Humans of Bristol University takes inspiration from the internationally renowned online platform, ‘Humans of New York.’ We used audio, videos and photographs alongside text in order to tell the stories behind the faces of the university community. We began by interviewing the Best of Bristol lecturers in support of their annual lecture series. We then expanded wider and curated stories from library staff as well as students, covering topics from student engagement, mental health, and university accessibility. You can find the array of interviews here.
We had a fantastic time facilitating workshops and activities for the Student Union’s Education Forums, working with over 40 students from across the university.
We had students writing poems about their pedagogical experience, making a washing line of what they had learnt at university, shooting videos on teaching spaces and talking about big data at Bristol.
The Education Forums are key in getting a wide range of students together in order to discuss how to improve educational practice and policy at the university, and we were thrilled to be involved.
Coffee and Conversations
Throughout the year, we have had so much fun going into the heart of campus to meet students, share coffee, take surveys and talk about their educational experience across various departments.
We have compiled and presented this data into an infographic video, to give a flavour of the intricacies of student satisfaction, and what they think can be done to improve teaching and learning practices at the university.
Pedagogical Pub Quiz
To celebrate the end of the academic term, we ran a pedagogical pub quiz with plenty of pizza and food for thought in the White Rabbit. We made a space where students could come and relax amidst the pressures of the revision period, reflect on the year gone by and take part in activities designed by the BILT Student Fellows and their respective projects.
Our rounds were designed to stimulate curiosity in and around teaching and learning practice at Bristol, including a good old general knowledge round, identifying spaces and notable alumni of the university, as well as songs relating to education.
The pub was full to the brim with people, pizza and thoughtful discussion.
We have really enjoyed working on the many facets of our project this year, and we hope it has demonstrated that pedagogy at Bristol University is at its strongest when the dialogue between students, staff and academics is democratised, interpersonal and collaborative. Being a BILT Student Fellow has been an absolute highlight of our university careers, and we will dearly miss working for the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching. We look forward to seeing what the next cohort of Student Fellows will get up to next year.
Lizzie Blundell is about to graduate with a first-class degree in Liberal Arts. Bathed in the blossoming summertime sunshine, Lizzie and her daughter, Maria, joined me on Brandon Hill to blow some bubbles, to eat some treats, and to discuss the state of university accessibility.
So Lizzie, how did you come to take Liberal Arts? What was your journey into your degree?
I didn’t do conventional A-Levels. I physically couldn’t take them because of my health. I had a load of surgeries at that point, and I was in A&E pretty much every other day, so it wasn’t really feasible to continue at the school I was at. There weren’t many access things out there for me to be able to use, and I was in a wheelchair at the time.
But I did want to go to university, and I was a bit upset to see everyone else go before me in my year. It was my mum who actually found the course called the Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities at the University of Bristol, and she suggested that I go for it.
The Foundation Year is a relatively new initiative, isn’t it?
Yeah, so I was in the second year that it ran in 2014. You complete the foundation year and then you can apply to get into the University of Bristol again the next year for undergraduate study, where you can choose specifically what you want to do.
Could you talk a bit about what the Foundation Year exactly entails?
It’s a bit like Liberal Arts in the sense that each week you have your set reading with seminars and lectures, but it’s from a different department each time. You get to try a bit of everything.
Because the classes were so small, you’d have such a great relationship with your tutors, like Josie McLellan, and I was still able to access the other things that undergrads would be able to do, such as accommodation and the experience of being a fresher.
And I guess there’s going to be so many people from different walks of life as well. When you enter a conventional undergraduate degree, everyone tends to be from very similar backgrounds, traversing similar academic trajectories.
There were more mature students on the Foundation year, and people from different backgrounds. Some people had been out of education for years, so coming back to university was this big thing, and it was still exciting.
That’s what I especially like about this course. It’s suggesting that education is for whatever point in your life, a lifelong thing. It’s not just something that you do from 0 to 21. You can come back and dip in and out of it throughout your life.
Exactly. And the Foundation tutors were so supportive of me because my health went in and out at some points, and I ended up back in a wheelchair. They were rallying behind me and trying to push for changes at Bristol, because I had loads of issues with accommodation. They put me in Durdham Hall which is at the top of a very steep hill. Let alone the fact that I couldn’t reach any of the things in the accommodation when I was in a chair, and the doors couldn’t open automatically. But I was able to talk to Sarah Serning and Josie and they said “look, this is what we’re going to do” and I really appreciated that.
How did you find the change to Liberal Arts and the transition into your undergraduate following the Foundation Year? What were the biggest changes?
It was mainly the difference in who was actually around, especially as I’d been used to people who were mid-thirties minimum. But because I already knew the university setting, I felt more at home and more comfortable with speaking up in class.
That being said, I felt quite a shock when I was in seminars. Suddenly I seemed to be the only one who didn’t come back from a “normal” background in education, and I sometimes felt that I couldn’t speak up because I didn’t have their experience, even though I was used to that university setting. I also suppose it was obvious that I wasn’t the same age as everyone else.
That’s interesting. At least the Foundation Year is starting to ease that transition and democratise the academic voice irrespective of backgrounds. So going on from that, and this is a big question: what do you think about the state of accessibility at this university – physically and maternally speaking?
So physically, it’s hard to get around the university. We’re in a city campus, so you have to understand the limits there. But also we’re on hilly terrain, so actually getting from A to B can involve quite a lot of steep areas, especially depending on the care that you’re in or depending on how well your mobility is that day. It can be completely different from one day to the next.
In somewhere like Woodland Road, the parts that are wheelchair accessible are still quite steep, and recently with the new renovations to the Arts complex, they did put in some ramps. But these ramps were quite small, so they wouldn’t fit every type of wheelchair.
So you go in there expecting to have the same level of treatment as an able-bodied person, but you don’t. And you don’t want to make a fuss about it, because you don’t really want to think about what you can and what you can’t do because it’s already quite physically exhausting, let alone the emotional exhaustion of constantly having to push and be like “Please just get me a ramp!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that buildings play in the identity of universities. There’s a pride in old buildings as they point to prestige and tradition and stuff, but this pride can be isolating for people if they’re not willing to adapt the building to make it accessible for everyone as times change.
So I have an invisible disability. I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which means that I dislocate everything quite frequently, like earlier today I dislocated my jaw. Not a big deal! But having to use the things that I need to get by and looking the way I look, especially when I’m not in my chair, is quite isolating as my disability cannot always be visibly seen.
Those are the main mobility issues, but Sarah Serning, who I believe is the greatest woman that the university has to offer, is always there to help with these things and she’s amazing and I don’t think people know enough about her.
What is Sarah’s specific job?
She’s a senior tutor, so she’s there to just help you, in the most basic of terms. You think “senior tutor” suggests that you only go for academic purposes, but no! She’s there for everything. And it was great to go and talk about the problems I had.
But I suppose this year has been more about me being a mother. When I was on maternity leave, I was worried about how it was going to be coming back. Because firstly, I had taken a year out of education, so I wouldn’t be at the same level as everyone else doing their third year, academically speaking. And then it was a case of just being able to navigate everywhere financially physically and emotionally, so Sarah was really great at helping me with all of this.
For more context, I found out that I was pregnant when I was on my year abroad. I also found out that I was pregnant when I was 32 weeks. So I had 6 weeks of pregnancy. I had to come back from America because I was studying in Boston at a Jesuit college, nonetheless.
Wait, Boston College is a Jesuit university?
Yeah! The first question they asked me when they found out that I was pregnant was “How has your faith been moved?”
And what did you say?!
“I think I just need to talk to my mum.” It was down the phone as well! They had me in this tiny room. There was even a crucifix!
But anyway, I decided to email my personal tutor, Emma Cole, saying “Hi Emma Sorry for the late email, just found out I’m 32 weeks pregnant. I’m going to fly back on Friday.” She sent a lovely email back laying out all my options.
And what were your options?
Either to come back or not to come back to Bristol. So I came back and decided I was going to finish my third year.
But obviously I had a lot to figure out. At that point I was on universal credit because I had no income and I was a lone parent. Her father decided he didn’t want to be involved. So it was just us two, and my parents who were very supportive.
I had to figure out accommodation for me and Maria, as well as how I was going to manage being at university, so had to sort out nursery and its fees. Money was the big issue. I came back with a huge economic disadvantage. I had more money coming through student finance but more coming out.
I now have my accommodation through the university which is for parents, but it’s not great. I’m in a one bedroom small flat. Maria won’t let me sleep next to her, so I have to sleep on the floor. There’s no washing machine, so I have to wash everything by hand. There’s also a bit of damp which has given her asthma, and I pay quite a lot. It was going to be a push, I knew that from the beginning.
My place doesn’t have wheelchair access, so I had to choose between my physical ability and my maternal needs. There’s a duty of care with this accommodation which I don’t think is being met. I thought I could get through it, but it’s the end of the year now and I’m ready to move out of that flat.
So what’s happening next year?
I’m going to be doing distance learning for a research master’s. It’s easier for me. I think that’s one of Tom Sperlinger’s things isn’t it? He’s a big fan of distance learning, and the notion of education being an ongoing process. Next year, I’ll be undertaking a research on breastfeeding and metaphors of the body.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about breastfeeding on campus!
There’s no place to breastfeed on campus! There’s no parents’ room or anything. I’ve only seen one other mother breastfeeding at the university, and that was at the library. Now I am very pro-breastfeeding. I used to breastfeed in public. But I also always liked having my own space to do it as well. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it in public, but there’s something more secure in a private space, especially if you’re feeling uncomfortable. I think it should be a right to have that space and change your child, to sort out anything they need.
Recently in Beacon House, I even had an issue where they didn’t want me to enter the building at all with Maria. I’m guessing because of health and safety, and I know other student parents who had similar issues with different buildings. But if you’re not being given the same respect or treatment as other students and the main cause is having a child, then that’s maternal discrimination. There’s no other way to put it.
So there are times when it’s tough, when she’s teething, when I haven’t slept the night, and I still have to go in and still be the same student as everyone else, while being very aware of my limitations. But the fact is that, as I wrote in my dissertation acknowledgements, maternity should not be a barrier to education.
For me and other student parents, we are constantly trying to navigate being a student and being a parent and having two separate mind frames when at university. I can’t push myself as a student because then I’m not being a good mum if I’m tired and stressed, and being a mum is my priority. It’s trying to find that balance.
As we said, it’s about getting that shovel and digging everything up and readjusting it all to make education truly accessibly. No longer thinking of education as something for young people or for one particular demographic. If education is a universal right, it’s got to be for everyone at whatever age or stage of life you’re at. And that’s actually difficult to implement when education was not founded to be like that. It can feel like you’re hitting a brick wall sometimes.
So much research at university is being focused on gender relations at the moment, and that’s hugely important, but many people don’t see maternity as part of that parcel. I don’t really understand that.
Maybe it’s just internalised judgement on my behalf, but I feel guilty for being on benefits and being a young mum, especially as I chose to go back to education rather than choosing to go to work straight away.
But that internalisation is still significant, because we live in a society that allows you to internalise that guilt; the system makes it very difficult for you to balance all of these facets of work, learning and maternity.
I never expected to come to university and get pregnant, and so I also feel the guilt of having to rely on friends and family for emotional support. But I was raised to believe that education is one of the most important things, and I stand by that.
At this point, Maria gets bored of blowing bubbles, so we carefully take her down the steep path to the play park at the base of Brandon Hill. Lizzie rocks her on the swings and answers some quick-fire questions.
What’s been your favourite class at Bristol, and why?
I really loved ‘Literature and Medicine.’ I’ve been really been getting into medical humanities. One of my last essays was on the relationship between sign language, AIDS and posters. With most of my units, I tend to take an interdisciplinary approach, and I find it quite liberating.
I actually really enjoyed ‘Public Role of the Humanities.’ I wasn’t expecting to as it was a compulsory unit for Liberal Arts. We had a guest lecturer each week from around and beyond the university. And the question they each answered was “What is the public role of the humanities?” They would respond from their own discipline, and most of lecturers came from an interdisciplinary angle.
One of the core elements of the module was a work placement, so I chose to work in a library. Someone worked at Colston Hall. Someone worked in a theatre. People did loads of different things.
Whenever you get a chance, what do you do to relax?
Drag Race. I love Drag Race. I love watching films. I suppose I feel sad I can’t read that much anymore during the day. At night I just need to switch off, so I never read for fun anymore. But I’m hoping now that the dissertation’s over, I get more time to do that. When Maria’s in bed, my head turns to house work. I can’t really switch off and of course I worry about her.
Aside from the academic side of things, what has university taught you?
Don’t underestimate students from different backgrounds. They bring so many different arguments and experiences. For me, that’s defined everything I do because I relate to things differently and see things with an alternative perspective.
What advice would you give yourself if you were starting university now?
Just because it went differently doesn’t mean that it’s not ok.
Interview conducted by Phoebe Graham, BILT Student Fellow.
In the crisp sunshine of a Saturday morning, I walked to Whiteladies BTP to have a coffee with John Gilbert, fifth year medical student and former Faculty Rep for Health Sciences. John pioneered the establishment of the University-wide Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey. We talked about John’s journey into medical school, his university experience and his time working as a faculty rep. Imagine coffee clinks and a persistent hum of steam in the background, which underscored our conversation.
Content Warnings: discussions of issues pertaining to mental health, suicide and self-harm.
So John, what inspired you to apply for medical school?
I suppose it’s probably because my brother and sister are both doctors – that had a lot of influence. I looked at other things to do, but medicine just seemed right at the time. It’s quite young to decide what you want to do, but I think I’ve been quite lucky because I’m still enjoying it.
I used to live with a medic and I was really interested in the Bristol medical course because, despite being a degree that is quite scientific at heart, you do creative and practical, as well as more traditional forms of assessment, and I was wondering if you could tell me about the kind of things that you get up to in journey to becoming a doctor?
So there’s an element we do call ‘whole-person care’, so instead of just focusing on the disease and the treatment, the medical school are really keen for us to focus on personal treating, as that’s what makes a good doctor – you don’t just come in and treat the cancer or the lung condition, you treat the human that’s sat there and it makes the process a lot nicer for everyone. So a lot of it is focused around the dualism between the doctor as a scientist and the doctor as an artist – we explore how creative you need to be for innovation and to make change in medicine, and there was a lot of opportunity to be creative.
The other quite fun ones are called ‘OSCE’s’, Objective Structured Clinical Examination. It’s made up of ten-minute stations where you’re asked to break the bad news of Cancer or do a cardiovascular examination, all checking that you have the real-life skills to be a doctor. Depending on the unit, we might have to do a presentation or an essay as well, it’s really varied which is quite nice.
Absolutely. What did you do for your whole person assessment?
I think I did a print about Alzheimer’s, and it was just the Alzheimer’s word repeated. At first it started multicoloured and then it faded to grey scale, and then the word just faded out completely – just that sense of losing everything.
See that’s what I think is so good and interesting about this course – I find your diversity of assessment, while I guess it is tailored to becoming a doctor, should nevertheless be applied to lots of different subjects. How do you find that range?
I think it reflects the whole spectrum of specialities that doctors end up in, and I think that’s the key thing. You’ve got surgeons at one end, or psychiatrists on the other and the range is just trying to satisfy and get people interested from an early stage in what they want to do.
I guess it goes back to the fact that if you only have one form of assessment, then that’s only favouring one kind of brain and one kind of speciality. Medicine’s variety of assessments is much more democratic.
The nice thing about medicine is that in the past couple of decades, there’s been a massive focus on evidence-based medicine and that has transferred into medical education and medical assessment. In terms of all the ways we are assessed, medical schools across the UK try to evidence that these are valid tools of assessment, shown to make a safe doctor. So as a student, you can feel confident that you’ll be good enough if you pass, which is quite nice.
Yeah absolutely. Just to feel like you have a safety net, and you feel secure. What’s been the highlight of your university time so far?
I’ve been really lucky to be involved in a lot of societies. I’ll be going into my sixth year of university next year, so I’ve had a lot of time to do fun things. I think one of my favourite trips has been diving in Gozo in the Mediterranean with the university’s underwater club, and that was incredible. It was a really fun trip and a great society. Other things that have been really fun…just sports at Bristol. I know they get a bad rep, but if you’re just looking for something fun to do, I’ve enjoyed it.
I don’t think it’s the sports themselves that get a bad rep, it’s the wider culture.
Yeah, sometimes the culture of intense initiations can exclude so many students. One of my friends was really involved and became the chairman of the medic’s rugby and completely changed the culture of it. He got so many more people involved and opened it up to vets and dentists, and essentially anyone who wanted to play. He got the highest turnout to training ever. They have fun drinks but there’s never any pressure to drink and it completely turned the club around.
So tell us a little bit about your time working as a faculty rep for health sciences. When did you do that? What initially compelled you to apply? How did you establish the Mental Health Survey?
At the time was as I was applying, a lot of my friends were suffering from mental health issues but they weren’t really willing to go to the university about it, and that really shocked me. I was asking them why and people were scared of things like Fitness To Practice, so potentially being struck off, not being allowed to complete the year, or being forced to take the year out. There was a big myth around what the General Medical Council did, and how willing it was to stop you studying medicine, as you have to show that you’re fit to practice. And I think that was partly one of the issues around students not approaching the university for mental health help.
I guess it means you have to grow up very quickly, as well.
You do, yeah. And when you’ve got mental health issues and you know you’re being overseen by a professional body, it’s a massive barrier to seeking help. So the survey started when I spoke with Zoe Backhouse and Helen at the SU, and we just wanted to do a small in-house survey at the SU, so we designed a survey and started asking a few personal questions about drug use, self-harm and suicide. It got quite serious and the university said that we couldn’t ask these questions unless you get ethical approval. Eventually after three attempts, with the help of some really kind academics from the School of Social and Community Medicine, we got ethical approval and ran the survey in May of 2017. We got a really staggering response rate of over 50%, and some really useful data for the health sciences, so that’s the short story.
We wanted to run the survey again, and the university suggested that we disseminated it across the whole university. I haven’t been involved since, but I think there hasn’t been as much student involvement since we first did it. Since a student hasn’t been directing it, it hasn’t really got as good a response rate, which is a bit annoying. Students are always hounded with requests to do things, and I think I was particularly persistent in trying to get students to fill it out because it was so important at the time.
It’s difficult isn’t it. Most people will always respond to a Student Union dissemination, and obviously the Student Union does need to be separate to the university to hold them to account, but at the same time that divide also creates a rift of engagement.
Yeah, so I think the challenge for the future will be, as with all surveys, trying to get a better response rate. I’m obviously very biased but I think it is the most important survey that Bristol has to do.
Off the back of that, what steps can be taken to improve response rates?
You need big billboards in libraries with a QR code, you need to get the SU on board, lecturers involved, you need heads of student societies and presidents on board and it just needs so much more student involvement and engagement, and getting an email from someone you’ve never met before from the senior management team at the university probably never gets read. They should be monitoring if these emails are being opened and if the link’s been clicked on, and they definitely have the capability to do that.
What steps do you think this university, and universities across the country, can take to improve their stance on mental health?
I think Bristol is under a lot of pressure because of the suicides that have happened here, and that puts a big spotlight on Bristol. One thing that I’ve noticed recently, especially in the press and with peers, is that everyone’s been very critical of Bristol. And they’re allowed to be, and I fully understand why they’re being critical, but not many people are offering solutions or ideas for change. All I’m seeing is an anti-university rhetoric instead of a ‘this isn’t good enough – change it’ attitude. That’s what I feel, but I’m not sure if that’s right and I’d be happy to debate that with people.
The NHS used to provide a lot of these services, and it’s faced massive cuts over the last few years. Coming from an NHS background, you do see these cuts in person when you visit psychiatric hospitals or see that a GP only has ten minutes to deal with any patient. The NHS also has a massive role to play in student health.
In terms of the university, mental health services need more funding, we need to cut down key student concerns like waits for student counselling, or encourage more positive help, such as group therapy and better access to mental health services. It’s a really difficult question and I think if there was an easier answer it would have already been done. Nothing that’s worth doing is easy. We need to start thinking about, not just universities, but how we as a society and a national health service, are to look after these students and provide for them.
Aside from academic knowledge, or medical knowledge, what has your time at university taught you?
I want to say, more than I’ll ever know. I don’t think I’ll know what it’s taught me until after I’ve left university and I’m a few years away. I’ve gained so much from being at university. Just being a more confident person, engaging more in things, dealing with when things go wrong, growing up as an adult – learning big adult things. Learning how to relax is a really important one. The most important thing in life is just to have fun, and enjoy yourself.
I think that’s an interesting point about feeling the impact but not being able to articulate it yet – that’s a sign of personal transformation. Following on from what you were saying about the importance of relaxation, what kind of things do you personally do to chill out?
Whilst I was studying in Bristol, and I wasn’t away working at hospital, I joined a lot of clubs, I did diving, Judo, I did a triathlon for a year just to get a bit fitter. Nowadays, I just do a bit of cycling. I really enjoy making pizza. Otherwise, just a bit of Netflix – often I’m just a bit tired so I like to lounge around and do nothing!
This takes us back to the importance of sports and exercise. I find for me that exercise, and the release of endorphins, is often the best way to make me feel better when I’m feeling a bit lower than usual.
I have the perception at Bristol that sport is a competitive thing and you need to be good at it. This goes back to the previous question of what I would do to try and improve mental well-being at the university. I’d try to create far more opportunities for inclusive sport where people don’t need to feel judged or good at something.
Performance sports is all great, but if you’re applying for performance sports as a club, and you have to show that your top teams are completing at a high level, how are those clubs expected to provide for people who used to play social netball or hockey or rugby or swimming at school? Those people aren’t going to turn up anymore, as it’s not the right environment, and you’ll be forcing people who used to do it for a bit of fun into a highly competitive atmosphere. This puts so many people off from doing sport and I disagree with that entirely. I think there needs to be a major rethink of sport and exercise at university.
I completely agree – there’s not enough opportunity to take up a new sport as well!
I think a lot of students at the university would do more sport if it wasn’t so exclusive and competitive and there’s definitely not enough opportunity to go and have a bit of fun, and do something once a week, or just to try things. The Sports Officer a few years ago did a good job of trying to change that around and make it a bit more inclusive, so there was freshers’ week and a second week in January when you can go and try another sport, as a taster.
So speaking of tasters, if you could take on another subject aside from medicine, what would it be and why?
I’ve always really loved planes and helicopters and part of me really wants to be a pilot, so probably aeronautical engineering, I find it so fascinating and cool. I love those really boring plane documentaries about airports and how do they do it and how do they build it – it’s really dull, but I love it.
What are your top three places to hang out in Bristol?
Cabot Tower’s a really nice, free place to go and get an amazing view from Bristol. I like places with really good views, so the suspension bridge. Then either the top floor of the Bristol Royal Infirmary or the top floor of Biomedical Sciences, where you can look out across the whole city.
Shout out to biomedical sciences, that’s such a beautiful building! Do you have anything else you would like to throw in before we wrap up?
Just make the most of university, get involved, make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s the only way we learn. We’re all very afraid of getting things wrong, failing and whatever.
I think we could do a whole other interview about fear of failure among students.
I really think we need more life lessons from a younger age: learn to fail, relationship advice, money advice, all the things we never get taught – there’s more to life at that age than learning how to do trigonometry and calculus.
I think we’re facing so many problems in this world that we have no idea how to solve, so we need to instil a better sense of discussion and critical thinking in the next generation. I just think there’s a much larger place for philosophy and critical thinking in our education system. I just think there needs to be a massive reform in the nature of our education, as it stands.
This interview was carried out and transcribed by Phoebe Graham, BILT student fellow.
Check out our next of the Humans of Bristol University, this time in video form! Today, we shine a light on Damien McManus: Subject Librarian for English and Modern Languages, and track his journey into Librarianship.
Interview conducted in the Special Collections of the Library, by BILT Student Fellow Phoebe Graham.
Dr Bex Lyons is a Teaching Associate in English and Personal Development. She is a late medievalist with research interests in book and reading history, particularly female owners and readers of Arthurian literature in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England. Her BoB lecture ‘Medieval Romance: Unexpected Journeys and Meetings’ considers the transformative value of the arts and humanities in modern and personal contexts, using herself and her experience of reading medieval romance as a case study. I caught up with Bex over a cup of tea, to talk about her research, her academic journey, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the therapeutic benefits of river swimming.
So Bex, who inspired you to go to university?
Well, I’ve always loved books. And I think I can probably trace that back to my mum, because she always took me to my local community library once a week to pick out a new book. And so that really instilled a love of reading into me. She always wanted to go to university herself, so I think she was really supportive and encouraging when I said, you know, I love academia. I love learning. I want to keep doing this.
Also the English teachers that I’ve had. I don’t know what it is about the English teachers that I’ve had in my life, but they all seem to have been really inspirational in their own ways. Particularly a lady called Ms Waters from my secondary school who was terrifying to all the other students. She had this really scary Victorian way of dressing and she was one of these teachers who could control a room without raising her voice, just with a look. And one day on my birthday, she cameand knelt down next to my desk and she said, ‘all the best people are born today, you know?’ It turns out she had the same birthday as me! She really brought out the best in me in terms of love of learning.
What were your expectations for yourself as a student?
Probably fairly low. When I moved to Bangor from London as an undergraduate, I had taken a gap year. I had gone off and traveled and become marginally independent by doing that. But when I moved to university, it was my first extended period of living away from home. And I didn’t even know how to boil an egg for the appropriate amount of time. So I was really busy learning how to be an independent adult, and sometimes my studies took a bit of a back burner to that and, you know, all the fun exploration that you do as a teenager.
So I started as an undergraduate in 2005, and graduated in 2008, the month before the financial crisis hit. And I look at the students that I teach now and I think a lot of the pressures that they face I didn’t necessarily feel in the same way. I get a lot of students coming to me now and saying, ‘I really need to differentiate myself’ because it’s so competitive out there. I totally get why they feel this pressure because I think the world has changed. And I do think that things are much more challenging now, especially economically, and the pressure to know who you are, and to be able to specialize so early on.
I think there’s a lot to be said for meandering. I’m a great meanderer, my life was taken lots of meandering turns. And to me, that’s been a real blessing and a privilege and I just wish that I could grant space to my students to do some of that meandering. You know that Baz Luhrman song ‘sunscreen’, he says some of the most interesting people I know at 40 didn’t know what they wanted to do.
I’ve made a career out of enjoying reading books. So it’s going to sound so cheesy, but find your bliss and follow it. If you can. I realize that sometimes following your bliss and making money don’t quite tally up, but if you can make it work, it’s great!
Following from that, when you came to the end of your undergraduate, did you know that you wanted to go into academia? Or did you know specifically what you wanted to do after uni?
When I finished my degree, I did feel a bit burnt out and a bit fed up of essays and exams and studying. So I got a job the month after I graduated working as an editorial assistant for Arden Shakespeare, which was, you know, Dream English Literature Graduate Job!
I worked as an editor and worked my way up in academic publishing for a few years, but I always had this like niggling doubt, this feeling that I was missing something. Because although I was editing other people’s writing, and working with authors really closely, I wasn’t producing anything myself research wise, and I think that part of me really missed doing that.
So, in 2010, I started a part-time masters at King’s College London, because I was working in London at the time, while I was working full time as an editor, so I’d run off to seminars and then run back to work and make up the hours. And by the end of that two year, part-time masters, I really felt like I hadn’t 100% dedicated myself to either my academic work or my publishing job. And I thought, right, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to do it properly. So I decided to quit my glamorous career in publishing, and go and do a PhD full time and be a student again. Everyone thought I was mad, but I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I wouldn’t look back at all.
So at university did you ever feel stressed? And if so, how would you go about managing that stress?
Yes, I think probably more so the older I got. Particularly during my master’s, when I was juggling work and studies, I found that very pressured, very stressful. And what do I do to counteract that? Well, I’m a qualified Yoga instructor – that’s one of my many hats.
Yeah! So I do a lot of Yoga and breathing techniques. Being in nature as well. During my PhD, I moved down to Wiltshire or the Shire, as I affectionately call it, and I live really close to this patch of ancient woodland. For my PhD, I’d be sitting at my laptop for 14 hours a day, sometimes. Just hunched over, not seeing sunlight, eating absolute crap. And so taking myself out for a walk in the woods was, for me, a really good way to reset, rebalance and re-center. So being in nature and yoga – two top tips!
I know you’re a fan of wild swimming, as well.
I am! This is a more recent thing. So last summer when we had that blissful, beautiful, hot, long summer, I just used to go and fling myself in rivers and swim about, so I’d also recommend that – very de-stressing. Being in nature, that’s where it’s at.
Obviously the whole mindfulness discussion is so popular nowadays. For students, it’s just so important, especially if you are spending, as we do, just so much time in your own head thinking and writing and you’re really just not in contact with the rest of your body at all, and it’s the essential fusion of the mind and body that we forget…
Absolutely, I mean, even just something as simple as breathing and actually paying attention to your breathing can really re-centre you. So even if you have to stay at your desk, and you don’t have the time or liberty to go anywhere else, just pay attention to what your breathing is doing, and really try and slow it down. Breath a bit more deeply. That will help.
What inspired you to become an academic?
So the thing with academia is, I just love it. Even with all its systemic issues…there is so much that is probably quite wrong with academia, like precarity and issues with contracts. But for all its faults, it’s the only job that I’ve had, where my mind is stimulated.
And teaching, as you know, because I’ve taught you Phoebe – I love teaching. And when I first started teaching during my PhD up in York, it was like a revelation to me, because research can be so arduous sometimes and so thankless. You can spend days in archives and not find anything useful, but you go and teach a class and that’s instant gratification because you can see these young minds being inspired. And you’re connecting with them. And I just think it’s such an important, beautiful thing that I’m so privileged to be able to do, and I don’t know any other job that would let me have all of that
That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard! I also love your nails.
Thank you! It’s my hen weekend, next weekend, and I said, ‘make me look like a unicorn!’
Do you think a connection can be found between your passion for river swimming and your career as a late medievalist?
Ooh I like that question. Yeah, I think there is a connection, and I think that connection is my own hedonism. Because life is very short and death is long, and so I like to do what makes me happy and those two things make me very happy.
Well there we go – that was quite easy! Have you got a favourite Arthurian legend?
Anything about Morgan le Fay! Morgan le Fay is my home girl. I just love her…so for those who do not know, I’ll explain:
She’s Arthur’s half sister, King Arthur that is, and she often pops up in Arthurian legends to antagonise him and his knights in some way or to kidnap someone, or to just generally be a bit of a pain. But I think she’s awesome because if you didn’t have Morgan le Fay during times of peace, you’d have a lot of very fat lazy knights who are just feasting and dancing and not getting any exercise. So I think she keeps them on their toes. And the fact that it’s her lap that Arthur’s head rests on when he goes on this final voyage to be healed of his wounds in Avalon, I think it shows that, you know, she’s alright.
Keep the men in check! So I know that for your lecture, you want to integrate personal anecdote with your research, so in light of that, how can the values of your lecture which, as I was reading, are centred on medieval conceptions of fantasy, magic, love, chivalry, relate to the contemporary day?
So my lecture is obviously aimed at a general audience rather than medievalists, so that was the first thing I had to bear in mind and not be too geeky and specialised. But what I really want to do is to explore the value of the arts and humanities quite broadly in modern contexts. And I’m using myself as a bit of a case study, because what really struck me when I first got into medieval literature as an undergraduate was not how weird it was. So some of my fellow classmates were like, ‘Oh, I can’t read this, Middle English is to it too weird, too hard, I can’t do it.’
But what struck me was how familiar so many things felt. The same things crop up: love, friendship, death. Medieval people have the same worries and fears and preoccupations as we do. And so to see myself in a literature that was so alien in so many respects, felt really meaningful, and it still does to me.
And this is partly why my specialist area of research is looking at women reading Arthurian Literature in 15th and 16th century England, because I’m a woman who reads Arthurian literature, so for me it’s really fascinating to see how they were doing it back in the day. And I think that being able to see yourself in people who are from totally different contexts to you is such an important lesson that carries through to every aspect of life.
I think that’s really inspiring as well, because we, especially some students, often think of the academic world as this ivory tower where you go to get a degree, and then you go into the ‘real world.’ So to be able to have that outlook on academia, where what you’re doing is still very much rooted in the personal and still wanting to inform how we’re living today. It’s really, really refreshing.
I think it’s just so important, especially now when people who Shall Not Be Named want to build walls, or separate us from the European Union…I think it’s really important to remember that we are all connected and that we’re all much more similar than we are different, and I think studying medieval literature really reminds me of that. And I think I never want to forget that.
How on earth do you go about researching the women who read Arthurian literature?
Lots of rummaging in archives! That’s my happy place, being surrounded by medieval manuscripts, poring through them, looking for readership marks in the margins of books, or sometimes you see women writing letters to each other about stuff that they’ve read and it’s a bit like being a detective. It’s very cool.
And finally, who is your favourite drag race superstar?
*gasps* How did you know?!?
Because I follow you on Twitter and every time you respond to me, it’s always a gif of RuPaul’s Drag Race…
How amazing is that? I mean, just that in itself, that you follow one of your tutors on Twitter. That did not happen in my day, which I think is brilliant. Oh, favourite, favourite favourite? Possibly Latrice Royale whose saying, ‘Good God Girl, Get a Grip’ is kind of a mantra for life I feel.
Can you make any links between RuPaul’s drag race and your research?
Yes, definitely. drag queens are fierce. And I love them and again, hedonistically speaking, they make me very happy. I think, because I’m a very tall woman. Your readers will not know this, but I’m 5 foot 11. And I’ve always kind of struggled to feel feminine. And so I think seeing drag queens, who are so tall, so super feminine – I’m just very jealous. And I guess the feminine really interests me in all its iterations and the construction of gender. I teach a lot of this stuff in my classes.
Any there any drag queens in medieval England?
Well! One of the units that I did on my masters at KCL was queer theory. And one of the things that we looked at was some court cases that showed people living in medieval London as different genders and living trans lives, which was amazing. And there was this one case, now I’m going to get all the names wrong, but I think it was someone called John, and they were born biologically male, but were living as a woman and working as a prostitute, as a woman. But I don’t think they were in court for that. I think they were in court for theft or something.
So it’s really interesting, seeing all these layers and the names that were used in the court documents to refer to this person. So certainly, gender has always been much more complicated than just the male/female binary.
Again, this ties back to the fact that these ideas are not new. What a lot of people regard as a contemporary phenomenon of being able to question one’s gender, or to be able to look at gender in a different way, is not by any means recent.
And that’s another reason why I think that looking at medieval and earlier literature and other documentary records is so important because we are living in a post-Victorian era, and potentially I think the Victorians might have a lot to answer for. So it’s important to go back and realize that these things are much more complicated and fluid and interesting than perhaps we might think.
This interview was carried out and transcribed by Phoebe Graham, BILT student fellow.
Tricha Passes is a Teaching Fellow in History of Art. Her ‘Best of Bristol’ Lecture on the 14th of March explores the role of the Parisian Café as a meeting place for the exchange of art and ideas in the early twentieth century.
Who inspired you to go to university?
My parents encouraged me to go, and I went with the goal and expectation of increasing my knowledge and understanding of art history. The lecturers at the Courtauld Institute were very inspirational.
Tell us about your favourite teacher.
Dr. Robert Ratcliffe was a brilliant teacher, and one who really made me think about the power of looking and pausing to look and reflect. He was an expert in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, particularly on Paul Cezanne.
Did you know what you wanted to do after university?
I was unsure exactly what I wanted to do after university, but I knew I wanted to work in the creative arts!
What kinds of things do you do in the classroom to engage your students?
I like students to think about the cultural impact of the period that they are studying and researching. The use of music, film and poetry all play a very significant role in aiding our understanding.
Have you got any surprising stories from your time as an art historian?
I think my most surprising stories come from the fascinating interviews I have undertaken with a range of artists and their families. I remember taking the railway historian and travel writer George Behrend out for a midsummer meal in the Scottish Highlands while I interviewed him about his father’s commissioning of Sir Stanley Spencer for the Burghclere murals. He had been a chauffeur for a time to Benjamin Britten, the composer! He had some good stories to tell.
What do you like to do to relax in your free time?
I like to wild swim or go for a walk in the woods.
What advice would you give students who are worried about the future after university?
It is as important to know what you don’t want to do, as well as what you want to aim for. Use all the university and friend networks to help you on your way. Don’t be shy about writing to people or companies you want to work for. Nothing ventured, nothing gained – shoot out those arrows!
Have you got a favourite café in Bristol or Paris?
My favourite café in Paris is one facing Place des Voges in Le Marais, and my favourite in Bristol is The Albion in Clifton, though that’s technically a pub.
Describe your lecture in three words?
I can do it in six: ‘A journey to a past time.’
Watch Tricha Passes’s Best of Bristol lecture below…
Jez Conolly is the Head of Student Engagement for Library Services at the university. See below to listen to the full interview or check out the text for the best bits!
I was an art student for many years back in the 1980s. I’ve worked for the university since 1990 by the way, so I go back a long way. My academic background is also in film research, so I’ve always tended to gravitate towards writing about cinema. My dad was a cinema manager for over 40 years, from just before the Second World War to 1980! So that’s probably where my general interest stems from.
I started writing articles for an online magazine in 2008 and started making a few connections with different publishers. Along with my wife, we co-edited three volumes in a book series called World Film Locations for Intellect Ltd which is a Bristol based publisher. We covered city locations, so we did Dublin, Reykjavik (which is a difficult one because there aren’t very many films made in Iceland at all) and Liverpool, which was quite a nice one to do.
You’ll actually find that there are quite a few creative people with creative backgrounds amongst the library staff. A member of my team, Beccy Pert, won the Cheltenham Literature Festival First Novel Prize last year! We have quite a few people who are writers and we have someone who’s involved in the graphic novel market, so there’s a whole load of really talented people working for the library.
I think it’s really nice to have that arts and creative background to draw upon in terms of what we do as a service because I think the thing with libraries is that, to your average user, there is often the potential for the service to be regarded as a little bit dry but necessary, so we try and moisten it a little bit to make it interesting and engaging. It helps to know that there are library colleagues out there who have the drive to get their teeth into something more creative when called upon to do so.
We’re really keen to contribute to links between the city and the university. In 2017, Bristol had UNESCO City of Film status bestowed upon it, which is not terribly widely known. I would really like to see how the university can do something around that. I’m working with the subject librarian for TV and Film to see if we can forge links between that department and what’s going on with UNESCO.
I always think the student experience should be porous; they should feel able to go into different spaces or have different experiences during their time at the university and within the city, and there’s no reason why that experience shouldn’t merge and become all part of the same thing. I think staff should be attempting to encourage and enable that porousness to happen. If that means, you know, making a point of going out and doing a thing that is beyond what is on my job description, I’m more than happy to do that. I can talk until the cows come home about this sort of thing!
A course is like a vehicle, and you jump on and jump off and the world carries on anyway; I think it’s very healthy to be as aware of that as you possibly can from as early a point in a course as you can be. I know what it’s like to be on a course and feel almost enclosed by it, and thinking the outside world can go hang, but it can’t really because one day you’ll rejoin it, so it’s better to be aware of that from the outset, I think.
To celebrate National Storytelling Week 2019, The University of Bristol Theatre Collection ran a creative and free writing workshop for students. Using original artefacts from the archive to prompt stories and conversations, the Theatre Collection stands as a testament to the therapeutic importance of integrating academic research with creative reflection in an informal and friendly environment.
We congregate in a lovely booked-lined reading room within the Theatre Collection, where the windows are wide and the silence is not stressed, but rather soft and cushioning. “Let’s think of the next few hours as a lab,” we are told by Dr. Jill Sullivan, Assistant Keeper: User Services at the Theatre Collection. I think about that word, “the lab,” and how it is not often used in the context of the Arts and Humanities. We see labs as spaces strictly for Science students; they are the ones we associate with experimentation, practical learning, theory testing, making mistakes but not being afraid to try again.
But I also think about how the Arts could learn from the Sciences, how they could adapt and apply the concept of the lab to their own sphere. Time and again, I sit in seminars of silence, sensing tense bodies with ideas on their lips, but lacking in the confidence to articulate ideas with a fear of ‘Sounding Stupid.’ To remedy this, perhaps we should think more in terms of a lab of literature, a historical playground, a resurrected marketplace of ideas. Thinking in terms of the lab in the Arts may encourage students to be more playful in their imagination; the seminar room can transform into a space of experimentation and risk-taking, not worrying so much if your ideas don’t quite work out the first time around.
So we sit in our archival lab, and we are encouraged to engage in free and creative writing responding to the array of items that Jill has retrieved for us. The room is made up of students from Theatre, Film, History, and Liberal Arts, but around half of us hadn’t ever heard of the Theatre Collection before. This is pretty surprising, seeing as it’s the second largest archive on British Theatre History in the country (after the V&A) and is in the top five worldwide. It’s a thriving treasure trove of resources, and holds regular exhibitions, a rich source of materials for both academic study and creative inspiration, which remains relatively unknown to the wider student consciousness.
Jill gently leads the group through a number of warm-up activities to get us into the swing of things, asking us to just freely write for a few minutes. At first, I found it hard to allow my brain to float freely from the initial writing prompt; it’s remarkable how, over the four years I have been studying across the Arts and Humanities at this University, there has been such little time reserved for actually writing, for emoting and for being creative during class time.
But after our fingers and thoughts are loosened, looped and working together, we open the first of the carefully arranged boxes to find a chorus of weird and wonderful normal things found under the floorboards of the Bristol Old Vic auditorium in 2011: mounds of dirt, marbles, pork pie wrappers, sweet wrappers, a 200-year-old mountain of debris (I guess all that glitters is not gold). We hold these shards of the past and write stories around them, filling in the gaps of history with imagination; we are completely fascinated by how the ordinary can be rendered extraordinary when framed within the care of archival preservation, the space between an object’s practical existence and how it then comes to be remembered.
We move on to some larger and more exquisite items from the archive, which leads to stimulating discussions surrounding the role of the archivist in the age of digital media and the mythologies of celebrity. “My favourite item from the workshop was Vivien Leigh’s handbag,” Charlotte tells me, who’s currently in her second year studying History. “It’s a beautiful little handheld handbag, and it has this cigarette stain on it which she actually made herself. It’s just amazing because if we had found this in a charity shop that wouldn’t be particularly unusual, but the provenance behind the bag is so important. It’s amazing that all these items are tangible, we can hold them and it brings everything to life really…especially in this weird digital world that we’re living in.”
In our theatre lab, we are given the space to be critical of the items we handle, exploring the ethics of confronting the past. Theatre & Film student, Perry, was particularly interested in the costume sketches for a production of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves at the old Prince’s Theatre (which used to be on Park Row, but was lost in the Second World War). “I just think the drawings are clearly very beautiful and intricate but it’s interesting to see what people’s point of references and impressions of “the orient” and eastern culture was like in those days. We are much more connected now and have much more cultural exchange than they did, so it’s fascinating to see how one person’s artistic impression of a particular culture can become embedded in the public consciousness, how something as creative and almost harmless as a costume design can become quite a political phenomenon.”
This workshop showed the importance of creativity in the academic setting. The workshop made for a wonderful space of experimentation, which we filled with relaxed learning, stimulating conversation and therapeutic creativity. Theatre and Performance Studies student Sally noted that “it brings out teamwork, and it’s really not appreciated enough.” Open workshops like this are so important for student engagement at the University, as they offer an opportunity to meet with, and think with, students from a range of disciplines and departments who you may not have otherwise come into contact with.
“It’s all about unlocking someone’s potential as well” Perry reflected towards the end of the session, “because there are big debates around standardization in education and whether exams are good etc, but creativity allows you to get someone who isn’t really into chemistry or Shakespeare and to unlock their interests and say actually there is something that you can connect to here. And often it’s very one-sided where the teacher is saying here’s what I’ve got to offer and this is what I’m going to tell you, but in this workshop we were all treated as if we were all part of the conversation; it made sure to treat you like an individual with your own ideas.”
Although the Theatre Collection is physically adjoined to the University Theatre Department, the Collection is an invaluable resource for Literature, History and History of Arts students alike. It’s an interdisciplinary space that allows for new connections to be made; they even collaborate with the MA Art History students on their curatorial unit, where items from the archive are curated, presented and brought to life in a public exhibition.
More than simply an extensive resource for academic research, Jill wants the Theatre Collection to be received as a peaceful and mindful space to come to read, work or just to reach outside of the University bubble, a space where you can be surrounded by local artists and community volunteers, books and exhibitions. A few years ago, I myself used to run a play-reading group for students in the reading room every Friday afternoon, which made for an intimate and personable alternative to the sometimes overwhelming rush of the Arts & Social Sciences Library.
I look at the table when our lab is over, now strewn with paper and pencils, thoughts and scribbles: evidence of our living archive. In a world which seems to orbit around the permanence of the keyboard and screen, I find it refreshing to place my pencil back into the pot, and to see how its led has worn down to bluntness: the mark of a mind set free.