The walls of Hermes’ office were covered in beautiful art – which we later found out had been painted by his dad. It was a lovely space to be in as we sat down early on a Monday morning and talked about his love for teaching.
Could you give us a quick preview of what your Best of Bristol Lecture will be about?
I will be a very long story, told in a compact form. It’s about how people like Newton, Alan Turing, Michael Phelps, or even Boris Johnson, are all connected. And how, in particular, mathematics is the thread that connects all these stories. People are expecting me to talk about sperm, because that’s what I research, but what I really want is for the audience to come out with a view of something which is much bigger, which connects all of us and many branches of Science.
Do you think that teaching is more engaging and people find it easier to understand when it’s explained through a story rather than just as disconnected facts?
Yeah, because as human beings, we don’t like to be just told information. I say to my students: ‘mathematicians are not calculators; we are creative beings’. And mathematics is a technique that you use, like when you explore your creative space through painting. So, stories are a way to get through to students. I don’t see our work here in Engineering, or Mathematics, or Biology, to be any different from the Humanities, in which people work creatively. Creation is literally to merge things, and to bring to life. This is what we try to do, and stories are the basic way to do that. Otherwise, you lose the meaning behind mathematics.
For example, when we teach Calculus, students have to do hardcore calculations. This can sound really boring at first. But you could connect this to a story, ask where this calculation comes from and where it leads to, and discuss the impact that these calculations could potentially have in your life. Stories are a way for us to empathise, and that’s the main difference between humans and data.
We live in an era of data, right? Data science is everywhere. You’re flooded with data at this very moment, every single detail here is data. But humans do something different – we interpret this data, throwing away the things and the things we do want and then we put a meaning to that. We love to give a meaning to things that are meaningless. For example, when you see a beautiful view, it’s literally just data. Just light that’s coming through to your eyes. But if you think of it like that, it’s too dry, and what’s the point? So, we put a meaning to it and appreciate the view.
It’s the same with university. It’s not just information, it’s not just a degree. So, we to connect with our students, because it’s more than just data. We tell stories to teach, because it’s more than just the formulae.
Do you find sometimes that your students find teaching like this a little bit strange, especially if they are used to more traditional facts-only teaching?
Yes, sometimes, but I want them to see the bigger picture. Unfortunately, the everyday aspect of any job can be very hard. You have to have the same enthusiasm and motivation and face the same pressures every day. It’s the same when you’re studying a course – the calculations will be difficult, they will be complicated, the students will not understand them at first and they will struggle. But teaching can help to change this perspective. It’s all relative, right? So if you’re looking at the same thing every day, why not try looking at it from a different angle? We could look at it from a different perspective and ask, is this the same? Is th another learning? So really, teaching can change the lens that you’re looking through and help you to see your subject differently.
But you can’t necessarily do this every day. It’s something that as a lecturer you have to attempt and try out. I often think, ‘how many times have I already taught this?’ and ‘how can I learn something new from this?’. So, every time I teach a lecture, it’s always completely different. I teach 250-350 students, it’s a huge audience, but every cohort has a different personality each year. You have to treat them as individuals. For instance, I like to make jokes, but the same jokes don’t work every time with every group. It’s amazing, because each lecture then is unique and private to those students. It also depends how I feel on that day. I understand that my students are all different, and they understand that I’m just human.
I remember one day that was really funny, it was an absolutely mad day where I had meetings back to back and I had no time. I decided to cook some really nice Chinese noodles for lunch. By the time it came to the lecture, I really wanted to eat, but I didn’t have time. And I thought, maybe I can have lunch whilst I give the lecture? So I asked they students if it was alright and they said yes. And then I was talking in the lecture and I’d be like ‘wait, wait one minute while I have a bite of my lunch’, in the middle of 250 people, and they found this hilarious but I was just really hungry! But if you think about the alternative, and I hadn’t eaten, I would have been grumpy. I wouldn’t have been able to eat until like 6pm on my busy schedule, and that’s not sustainable, so it was so nice that the students were like ‘actually you know, it’s fine, he’s only human as well’ and there is this type of understanding between us.
It’s great that you’re showing the students that you’re just human. A lot of what we try to do with the Humans of Bristol University is to try and bridge the gap between students and staff, to show that we’re all just human.
Exactly, exactly. Another example was when I came up with a hand signal between me and my students. Because there are so many engineering students who know me, but I don’t always recognise them, or know their names. But if I go to the harbour, or the gym, they will be there. I thought it would be nice for us to have a way to identify each other. So I introduced this: I said, how about we have a pact between us, like a secret hand signal, so if you see me in the street, you do it, and I recognise and we can say ‘we’re family, I know you!’. And they really do it! If I go to the supermarket, I see them there, and they do it! It’s amazing. Sometimes when I’m really stressed, and having a bad day, and then I see someone do the signal, it really changes my mood you know, in that moment. It’s almost like there is a connection.
I think it’s difficult sometimes, for international students, with the different landscape and different culture and everything. But I’m the same, I’m married to an English woman and she works in Classics, and I always bring a lot of stories from my background. Especially about language, because I’m not always really good with how I express myself [in English]. But I started seeing students be more confident with me and coming to me after class. Especially sometimes in teaching, a word will come to me in Portuguese, and then I make a joke, and teach them a little bit about it, so they understand why I did it. I think all students can empathise with me, both the English and the overseas students, because I am a little bit of both. I’m Brazilian, but I’ve been here for 10 years. And I’m having a baby(!), who will be half English and half Brazilian, so I understand these problems.
It must make such a difference to students who have a dual-nationality identity crisis, or for those whose first language isn’t English to see someone talking openly about it. Clearly your students appreciate you and the way you teach – you only came to Bristol this year and have already been nominated as a Best of Bristol lecturer!
For me it was really a big surprise. But I had decided to take some risks. I’ve had a lot of teaching experience in the past at different places, and I’ve always been more cautious. But now I’ve reached the age where I know that students will be able to manage – they are very resilient and you don’t have to treat them like school children. You can experiment and try new things. I think I have a relationship with them and I think they respect me so I can actually take more risks.
For example, in their final lecture I made them a song. I took the lyrics from Wonderwall and changed them to put the mathematical equations in instead. I called it Mathemagical! At school in Brazil I had teachers that were very talented with a guitar and would sing us songs to teach us history. I always wanted to do it, but I never quite had the skills to do it. Especially for 700 people! What I’m trying to say is, it might sound that I’m very confident, but no, that was a risk. But the students made me feel very secure. It was pretty embarrassing, you know, I said, guys “we’re all going to sing together”. So I put the song on the projector and they did! That was wonderful. And again, it’s one of these things I don’t think I will manage to replicate. It was very organic for this particular group for this particular year. But it’s a nice thing because it’s special, isn’t it?
What advice would you give to lecturers at Bristol if they’re thinking of taking risks in their lectures, but aren’t feeling confident to do it?
To trust the students, because I think they are the best thermometer. Especially when they understand that staff are human. There are many ways we assess our teaching through feedback and forms. Students will come and go, but their feedback stays. Imagine if you’d been lecturing for 30 years and you receive feedback that says you are a ‘bad lecturer’. This might be true or maybe not, but this would be devastating for the lecturer.
If you take the perspective that we are all human, you can see that students are , and academics are. When they meet these two different worlds collide, and we can forget the human side of it. I think the best way to deal with this is to make yourself knowable as a person as well, not just a lecturer
I think a better model is just for everybody to be nice to each other. If someone is not managing to do something, try to be a bit more generous, it could be because of something you don’t know anything about, and you will not understand. We are all made of hundreds of crazy connections. But when you start to see students as attendance percentages or grades, then you lose their whole story.
I always tell my students: ‘you think I’m very clever because I’m teaching you this year, but the only difference between me up here and you sitting there is that I was born earlier.’ What’s the difference? It’s time. You can’t change time. Students will make mistakes, but they grow really fast in three years, four years. PhD and postdoc students, for example, if they stay in academia, will be the next lecturers So, you have to see the students as people and know that they’re very powerful. Many people are very clever here, but there will be always be people who are cleverer.
It’s really nice to hear someone talk passionately about teaching, as sometimes it feels like we’re such a research focused university.
I have to say that I’ve always loved teaching. My Dad is an artist and when I didn’t know what to do in my life he would always say ‘what is your service? What is the thing you’re going to give back?’. Teaching for me is the only way to have real impact in real time. All the other things I do, like research, they’ll take three weeks to three years to reach anywhere. And let’s say we published many papers, fantastic. But then again, they will take a few years and maybe a handful of people will read them. The real impact is generated here in universities as we teach students.
So the final question we’ve been asking all the Best of Bristol lecturers is: if you could make one change to learning and teaching here at Bristol, what would it be?
I think it would be to add some kind of really creative event where students and lecturers could be on the same level, so you can forge connections. What I would love is to have connections that will potentially last over time because students graduate and then we don’t hear from them and don’t’ find out what they get up to. So, not really for teaching, but basically for making friends. Let’s do pottery or something!
I think that would be really great. I spoke to a postgraduate student for a Humans of Bristol interview and she said when she was an undergrad she felt like she didn’t have any connection to her lecturers, but when she started her postgrad they treated her like she was on their level.
This is a criticism for all the universities I think across the planet – they want to grow too much. Have more seats for the students. Grow more and more, have fewer and fewer ways to connect. I don’t think the infinite growth, capitalist growth, is made for humans. I think this will be a big mistake. I think the most successful universities will be the ones that we will still feel some kind of connection too. Because, really, the information you learn at university, anyone could find in their own time. You could study at home without a university. But here, the connections we make and the stories we hear, that’s the true learning at university. The exams you do you’re going to forget. But the important thing is how you learned and that you can do it by yourself. Here we are all just a bunch of humans learning together – why don’t we embrace this fully?
Toby Roberts & Emily Kinder, BILT Student Fellows