Humans of Bristol University

Best of Bristol: Keir Williams

Outside the Centre for Innovation, using top-quality modelling and photography skills from both of us

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.

DJ sexmachine and his super best friends

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.

Dance Tents at Shambala

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.

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

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