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Humans of Bristol University

Dr Bex Lyons

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.

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Taken on the 15th of March 2019 in Bex’s office

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 came and 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.

No way!

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. 


Check out Bex’s medieval journey below…

News, Uncategorized

#Digifest19: The technology conference encouraging more human interactions

The following post was written by Amy Palmer, BILT Digital Resources Officer.

This year’s Digifest explored the theme ‘Shaping education for a hyper-connected world’, in which ideas around the digital challenges we are facing were shared and discussed. I attended three panel events while I was there and found that similar conclusions were drawn from them all: the use of technology may be increasing, it is imperative that we do not lose human interaction. This may seem obvious, but throughout the day there were moments where I felt a tension between discussions around how technology in education was becoming central to the learning experience and technology’s role in the creation of current mental health challenges facing universities.

The first session I attended looked at a report recently released by Jisc in which a qualitative study was undertaken with lecturers across the sector.  Five key themes emerged from 2-hour interviews with staff, with a number of recommendations being made. The one I’d like to highlight is:

 ‘Teaching staff are concerned to support students’ wellbeing and they take a holistic approach to student welfare. Currently, much of this work is done face-to-face. With time and space at a premium, universities and colleges could consider how digital technologies can help to support student wellbeing as well as other, less strictly academic aspects of the student experience’

One part of this statement really jumped out at me, ‘digital technologies can help to support student wellbeing’ – my mind immediately conjured a scene in which a student having a mental health crisis was faced with a computer instead of a human and the potentially damaging impact this would have. I opened the conference magazine to a double-page spread looking at this exact question, ‘Can technology ease the mental health challenge facing universities today?’, with six solutions set out, the most striking of which was chatbots – a solution recently employed by Bolton College in which students struggling with stress or self-harm are provided links by a chatbot to online information and contact details for the mental health team. I couldn’t help but feel this was more a cost-saving approach that one that had direct benefits for these students in need (but perhaps I’m being cynical).  

I was encouraged by comments made from panellists in which they emphasized the importance of human interactions, agreeing that face-to-face engagement should be maximised, but that appropriate space on campus was needed for this. Risks around disengagement from students where they can not attended were raised, but were balanced by risks of students feeling isolated and lonely when too much emphasis was placed on technologies.

The second session was a horizon-scanning panel discussion in which the 2019 Jisc Horizons report was launched. The report’s title is ‘Emerging technologies and the mental health challenge’ with panel members discussing the different ways this could be addressed. One panel member suggested technology could be used to ‘streamline human interaction’ – another concept I felt uneasy with.

It was agreed that a balance needs to be struck between the increased use of learner analytics and the potential reduction of human interactions though increasing number of online services (such as lecture capture and VLEs) and the mental health challenges facing universities. The panel members all agreed that a key take-home message from the report was that there was a need for a person-centred approach and that the technology must not replace the human, though I wondered how this would practically play out in a climate of reduced budgets, streamlining of staff, automation of administrative tasks and increased reliance on online services.

The final panel discussion I attended was on the ‘fourth education revolution’ – with the host asking the participants what they believed was ‘Education 4.0’. Responses were mixed, but all centred around the idea that education needed to be personalised, on-demand and customisable. The relationship is changing between the student and professor from one which is a transactional to a more balanced, less hierarchical one. All panel members had a background in educational technologies, but all noted that these services created more time and space for richer, face-to-face interactions.

At the end of this session a question was raised about whether we would even need a physical campus in the future, which leads me beautifully onto the final part of my day.

Jisc have created a virtual reality experience, ‘Natalie 4.0’, in which the user can experience a day in the life of a student that does not attend a physical campus. You wake up in a ‘bedroom’ at the beginning of your day and interact with tutors and students though making choices in the virtual world. The experience was eye-opening and something I believe many others in the University would enjoy – we hope to put on an event with Jisc in the near future to allow staff to try out this new way of learning!

News

Insights from attending UWE’s Festival of Learning for an afternoon

The following post was written by Emilie Poletto-Lawson, a BILT Fellow and Educational Developer in Academic Staff Development.

The Academic Practice Directorate at the University of the West of England (UWE) is the equivalent of Academic Staff Development[  team at the University of Bristol. They organised a week-long winter festival of learning [] after the success of their one day Learning and Teaching Conference which started in 2011. This year, they aimed to “create a buzz about Learning and Teaching to coincide with the NSS survey”. I attended one afternoon but it was fantastic to see students and staff come together to share their enthusiasm for learning and teaching.

The first half of the afternoon was entitled “Fresh approaches to T&L – A session in our new laundry space to get you inspired” led by Dr Laura Bennett (Associate director – academic practice directorate). The session included members of staff that delivered sessions in the new ‘laundry room’ as well as students that were attending sessions there but who were also using the room for extra-curricular activities.

I valued the opportunity to visit the Glenside campus of the University of the West of England to discover the laundry  room. At a time when a lot of thinking is going into teaching spaces in our University (BILT symposium June 2018 , BILT fellows working on space and design of Temple Quarter) it is always enriching to see what colleagues are experimenting with.

Before telling you about the presentation, let me tell you about the room. When we came in, it was a big empty space. I must say it had a medical feel to it, very white, sink at the back, metal shelves, not a warm atmosphere but perfect for its intended purpose: “a practical learning space for trainee optometrists, paramedics and occupational therapy students”. The facilitators were coming straight from another session on the other side of the campus so we had to build our classroom which was in itself a nice way to feel like we belonged and it was our space.

The room can be described as a “connected classroom”. There are four screens on both side walls, connected to a keyboard that enables students to use the screen as a group and it is also possible for the facilitator to show the main screen on all screens or to display the students’ screen on the main screen/all the screens. If you were able to attend a session during the digital classroom roadshow two years ago (June 2017) the set up was very similar apart from the fact that the tables were not fixed to the floor.

As the idea was to experience the technical aspect of the room we built our on wheels foldable table next to the screen and sat on high stools (not very easy if you have short legs like me) ready to roll. As I managed to sit down I realised my bag was quite far down from me on the floor and I had nowhere to put my coat. I was also quite far from the front as the room can open on both sides to create an even bigger space so the screens are at the back. Having moved the weekend before it did not take long for my back to start hurting but I was not quite sure what to do when another lady voiced the same issue and was given the option to grab a heavy chair instead of the stool. It was good to have an option but the chair was considerably lower creating some difficulties if you wanted to work from the table. Final hurdle for me as a non-native speaker, a fan covered the voices of speakers that did not use a microphone and it was a real strain to keep up.

However, despite all that, I still think it was a great workshop because it was about possibilities, about teaching differently and the space supporting your approach and ideas rather than limiting you. If you came into the room and lectured for three hours just talking at students, you would be missing the huge opportunities the toom has to offer to make your students more active, to encourage and facilitate group work, peer learning etc.

Laura Bennett introduced the aim of the session and presented key ideas from the literature regarding space and concluded that “Space should be what you need it to be”. The next speaker was Liz Reilly (Senior lecturer, social work) whose presentation “The Laundry in action – pitfalls and possibilities” gave a very engaging insight into the use of the room. Liz was very positive regarding the possibilities the room offered for learning and teaching:

  • Create groups based on theme 
  • Carousel approach – screens act as flipchart 
  • Moving from one table to the next made the students were very active 

However, she also picked up on the inclusivity issues I mentioned earlier and some other practical aspects.

  • Inclusion: comfort, high tables are a problem for people who cannot spent too much time on a stool and for wheelchairs, far away so lip read or hearing impairment 
  • Booking of the room, paperwork involved
  • Groups complained they could not hear what the lecturer said to specific groups 
  • Finally, being faced with one of her students lying on the floor to do back exercises despite the active approach she had in place was definitely not an outcome she expected.

Here are her pieces of advice:

  • Play around in the room 
  • Play around with what you are doing 
  • Log in ahead of your session and test everything: screens, keyboards, etc. 
  • Have a conversation with people managing the room 
  • Get feedback from students 
  • Get someone to observe you 

The following presentation, “Simulation: the Laundry as Emergency Room” byAimee Hilton (Senior Lecturer, Adult Nursing) took the original idea behind the design of the room and took it quite a few steps further. She transformed the Laundry into an emergency room treating the victims of a mass casualty event for paramedics, radiographers and nurses students. Drama students joined students paramedics, radiographers and nurses from other years to play the roles of patients. She also involved journalists students whose aim was to get as much in the way as possible journalists would should such an event take place. The university security team, fire brigade and ambulance crew also joined in to add to the realism of the situation. Did I mention professional make-up? Now, I must admit I would have loved to be a fly on the wall. The feedback from the students was extremely positive. It was very interesting that the hardest part of the planning was recruiting enough actors. I particularly liked the multi-disciplinary approach of the project.

The last presentation was by three students from the pre-hospital simulation society who study in the room but also used it for one of their events. The society provides “student led learning with the aim to facilitate realistic quality simulations to improve clinical competency and confidence within student Paramedics”. The Laundry is only one example of location, they have created simulations in a car, outside, during freshers’ fair etc. The idea is to design simulations of rare situations so that students are better prepared should it ever happen to them in their professional life. Each simulation is followed by a debrief at the end looking at what went well, what the literature says about such a situation etc. Their enthusiasm and commitment were exemplary.

Finally, Laura Bennet concluded the session with a tour of the side rooms and suggestions of technology to use to make your teaching more interactive. If you have attended CREATE workshops, you will recognize a few of those:

I am very grateful for the opportunity to attend the event and I feel I have learnt a lot. For me the main take away is that we need to make the space work for us and to be mindful of who will be in the room and how accessible out teaching as well as the room are.

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #3: Lucy Berthoud

The following teaching story was submitted byu Lucy Berthoud, a
Professor of Space Engineering in the School of Aerospace Engineering.

Encouraging students to engage with feedback

The students submit their coursework via Turnitin and Blackboard and get marked the same way. We spend hours marking student coursework and it is a bit dispiriting sometimes to discover that they have not bothered looking at the feedback. This particularly seems to happen if they are satisfied with the mark and it could be because there is a fair bit of negotiating the Turnitin interface to go through to access the comments. To combat this, I started releasing the feedback first and the mark on SAFE (SLSP) much later. Now, to discover their mark they have to go through all the negotiating of Turnitin and so they might as well look at the feedback at the same time. This seems to have encouraged the students to engage with their feedback.

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #4: James Norman

Dr James Norman is a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

A Friendly Welcome

As a lecturer I am always trying to think of different ways of crossing the divide between teacher and student. Some students are confident and will approach me with ease, but for many others they find it difficult to make the initial approach and admit that they didn’t understand what I said.

One of the ways I have tried to overcome this over the years is to think about the welcome at the beginning of my lecture series. Often I am nervous when I start teaching a new cohort and I always have to battle technology before I start a lecture but recently I have ensured that for the first lecture of the term I am set up with plenty of the time and I greet each and every student into my teaching space. I typically just try and smile and say welcome. It’s not a big act but hopefully it makes it ever so slightly easier for students to later come and ask a question.

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #2: Ann Pullen

The following teaching story was submitted by Ann Pullen, Faculty Education Director in the Faculty of Life Sciences and Programme Director for the MSc in Transfusion and Transplantation Sciences.

I’ve just been chairing the two day symposium on “Hot Topics in Transplantation” by the students on the MSc in Transfusion and Transplantation Sciences at NHS Blood and Transplant – Filton.

This is the authentic assessment on the Clinical Transfusion and Transplantation unit (weighted 30% on this 20 credit point unit, PANMM0019).

The students choose a topic to review that has appeared in the news in the last year.  They research their topic, critically evaluate the literature, prepare an abstract suitable for a scientific meeting, a poster and give a 15 minute oral presentation, with 5 minutes for questions and discussion.

Many of the talks were very impressive, triggering questions from the students, UoB and NHSBT staff, and thought provoking discussions amongst the students.

Talks included Uterus Transplantation (very topical for International Women’s Day), Breathing New Life into Bioengineered Lung Transplants, Reperfusion of Kidneys for Transplant and Faecal Microbiota Transplant.

Students from around the world (Chile, China, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) presented alongside UK students, including those part-time students working for NHSBT or in NHS hospitals.

It was really great to see the students working together and supporting one another to refine their slides and practice their oral presentations, and then engaging in lively discussion following the talks.

Unit Director :Tom Bullock  (NHSBT)
Guidance on poster preparation: Gary Mallinson  (NHSBT)
Essential admin support : Laura Chapman  (Postgraduate Student Administration Assistant,  UoB)

Previous contributions by:
Unit Director (retired):  Nicky Anderson  (NHSBT)
Programme Director (retired):Tricia Denning-Kendall  (UoB)

Humans of Bristol University

Dr. Thomas Jordan

This Interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Thomas Jordan is a Lecturer in Mathematics. His BoB Lecture ‘How Can Mathematics Improve Your Baking?’ will examine how a complex dynamical systems theory could be applied to our home baking skills. I caught up with Thomas to talk about his maths research, as well as his academic journey…

This picture was taken by Corrie on the 1st March in Howard House Math’s Common Room .

When you were a student, did you know you were going to become an academic in your field?

So… I come from a family of mathematicians, both my parents are mathematicians, my older brother is also a mathematician.

To be honest, I never really plan to get into mathematics, until I realised it was the subject I enjoyed the most at school and at university. As I got more invested in my degree, I particularly enjoyed  the pure side of maths. From there, I just went into a PhD and drifted down into the academic route.

There never was a specific time when I thought  ‘I’m definitely going to be an academic!’

Did you ever feel stressed when you were doing your PhD?

I certainly did.  When you’re trying to come up with original problems in maths, about 95% of work is realizing how stupid you are…Realizing that what you’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks doesn’t work at all is a very standard experience as a mathematician.

It’s challenging because anybody researching maths can at some point feel they’re not good enough or that what they’re doing isn’t actually relevant after all… All of these issues can come up when studying the subject, it’s difficult. Of course, that’s stressful, but you kind of go along with it! You have to remember not to be discouraged.

Do you think students tend to worry too much about the future?

I think you should look ahead and think about the future. But if you’re enjoying what you’re doing at the moment, then things do tend to work out and fall into place.

What do you think of the balance between your maths research and teaching?

It’s important to have a balance between researching and teaching. As I said, Maths research can be rewarding when it works out, but a lot of the time, it doesn’t. So, to have something more concrete to do is also extremely satisfying. Teaching does provide that.

I’d also say it’s very rewarding when you have students you see graduate, growing in confidence, going on to be successful through their time at university… It’s the most rewarding thing you experience as an academic.

Do you know all of your students by name?

No *laughs*

Do you try to remember your students names as much as possible?

So, when I’m teaching in smaller groups, I try to learn their names. I mean, when I’m teaching first-year lectures, where there are around 350 students, it’s impossible to know! You basically have certain faces and students you recognize. You will also occasionally meet with students who obviously know who I am, but I have no idea who they are… When that happens,  I then tend to assume that they’re probably a first year Maths student.

Do you remember who your favorite professor at university?

Yeah a couple!  I was s a student at St. Andrews. Dr.  Nik Ruskuc and Dr. Lars Olsen were a big influence on me. They were both very engaging lecturers. Both of them knew everybody in the class by name. They also always encouraged you to go beyond the standard curriculum and spend time working on harder problems beyond the syllabus, it was not about setting material around an exam.

What’s the most surprising thing that you learned about teaching and mass or anything?

I’m trying to think… Plenty of things have surprised me.

I think one thing is that when lecturing Maths, you can be better when you do ‘live’ calculations and risk making mistakes rather than being overly prepared.

If you over-prepare, you can make things look too easy and you don’t really get a clear idea of how you think about problems or calculations. You don’t reflect. if you actually think about it, you actually think about how you learn and practice math beyond what’s provided from reading a textbook.

That goes for every subject I think. You have to think about how you know what you know.

So, how did you make this connection between your research in Maths and Baking?

When I got the invitation to give my Best of Bristol Lecture, it came with a topic suggested by the students.  I thought it was a bit of a joke at first… the subject was cooking! Then I decided I would actually go ahead with that topic. In the area that I work – dynamical systems – there is something called the ‘Baker’s Map’, which is a system named after the process of kneading dough … It’s a bit complicated to explain but, hopefully, the content of my lecture will make a good ‘general audience’ talk.

You told me earlier that your favorite thing to bake was chocolate cake and that the secret ingredient was good chocolate. Are there other baking secrets you can share?

There’s one thing I like to bake: a dark chocolate cake that has Guinness in it. People love it, but I usually can’t tell them I made it with Guinness because that puts them off. I don’t usually tell people about that secret ingredient… I mean, between good chocolate and Guinness, good chocolate always wins people over!

Are there other things besides Baking that you do to relax?

I really like going hiking. Going on a weekend hiking trip is definitely a good way to relax.

What’s your favorite hiking spot around here?

I love going to  Quantocks, Mendips and  Abergavenny. You can actually take a bus there! And the bus tours halfway between Taunton and Minehead. The route is beautiful.

Come to Dr. Thomas Jordan’s BoB Lecture on the 14th of March at Orchard Heights! You can learn more about the talk right here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1959251517715752


The oral transcription was edited for the readers.


Watch Thomas Jordan’s Talk below…

News, Uncategorized

Why I am Making a Zine about Assessment

Zoe Backhouse is a BILT Student Fellow and fourth-year Liberal Arts student.

I’m making a Zine about assessment at Bristol uni. This Zine is going to be creative, visually-engaging and, most importantly, fun! 
Zines are great ways to bring narratives together from different types of people. I’m talking to students and academics across campus to understand how they experience assessment at the moment and what they want to change for the future. Assessment is important to us on more than just a pedagogical level. Talking to Physicists last month, I learned a culture of self-certifying where students feel so pressured by stacked deadlines that they tactically decide which exams to opt out of and re-sit in summer. At the same time, the Physicists also had more of a sense of community than any students I’ve come across in Arts. Their lab assessments, group projects and tight-knot relationship with alumni – who frequently post help for problems on their giant Physics Facebook group - has brought together a huge Physics family. Assessment can unite and divide us!
I want to understand more about why assessment is so important for how we experience university, both as teachers and learners. What concepts are currently discussed in the Higher Education sector that we should be taking on at Bristol? What good practice is already happening here that more people should know about? And how can we make the most of our student body, campus and vibrant city to improve how we assess and feedback?
The Zine will consist of drawings and paintings submitted by students, snippets from conversations with academics, quotes from student focus groups and easy-to-read articles condensing theory in HE. It will give academics and student reps ideas on what’s currently being debated and what methods we can move as we become a more pedagogically-focussed university.
Hopefully this will also be an opportunity to introduce Zine as a more mainstream method for presenting information and effecting change! We’d be behind the USA where universities are already harnessing Zinemaking as a way to teach – and learn - from their students. 
Have some thoughts on assessment you want included in the Zine? Know someone who would be good for me to talk to? Want to contribute a doodle, cartoon, sketch or piece of creative writing responding to the theme of assessment? Email me at zoe.backhouse@bristol.ac.uk to be involved!

Zine [definition]: some sort of publication, usually mass-produced by photocopying (in some cases scanned, put on the net, or copied via fax) on any range of topics, but usually filled with passion, a means of telling one’s story, sharing thoughts, and/or artwork/ comics/ doodles.

I’m making a Zine about assessment at Bristol Uni. This Zine is going to be creative, visually-engaging and, most importantly, fun!

Zines are great ways to bring narratives together from different types of people. I’m talking to students and academics across campus to understand how they experience assessment at the moment and what they want to change for the future. Assessment is important to us on more than just a pedagogical level. Talking to Physicists last month, I learned a culture of self-certifying where students feel so pressured by stacked deadlines that they tactically decide which exams to opt out of and re-sit in summer. At the same time, the Physicists also had more of a sense of community than any students I’ve come across in Arts. Their lab assessments, group projects and tight-knot relationship with alumni – who frequently post help for problems on their giant Physics Facebook group – has brought together a huge Physics family. Assessment can unite and divide us!

I want to understand more about why assessment is so important for how we experience university, both as teachers and learners. What concepts are currently discussed in the Higher Education sector that we should be taking on at Bristol? What good practice is already happening here that more people should know about? And how can we make the most of our student body, campus and vibrant city to improve how we assess and feedback?

The Zine will consist of drawings and paintings submitted by students, snippets from conversations with academics, quotes from student focus groups and easy-to-read articles condensing theory in HE. It will give academics and student reps ideas on what’s currently being debated and what methods we can move as we become a more pedagogically-focussed university.

Hopefully this will also be an opportunity to introduce Zine as a more mainstream method for presenting information and effecting change! We’d be behind the USA where universities are already harnessing Zinemaking as a way to teach – and learn – from their students.

Have some thoughts on assessment you want included in the Zine? Know someone who would be good for me to talk to? Want to contribute a doodle, cartoon, sketch or piece of creative writing responding to the theme of assessment? Email me at zoe.backhouse@bristol.ac.uk to be involved!

Humans of Bristol University

Dr. Mark Schenk

This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Dr. Mark Schenk is a Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering. His research area focuses on the application of origami in science. His BoB lecture ‘Folding the Future: How Origami is Transforming Engineering’ will explore the fascinating link between the Japanese Art and Engineering. I caught up with Mark yesterday to talk about his research and his path into academia…

Taken on the 7th of March 2019 in Dr. Mark Schenk’s office

Tell us about your upcoming BoB lecture, Give us a pitch!

It’s going to be about origami! Most people think of it as an art, they mostly think about, those  familiar paper crane structures that are a classic example of origami.

I want to show that there is more to it than that! There is science involved. In fact, origami has an important application in engineering. Civil Engineering, Aerospace Engineering… What I want people to get out of my lecture is that it’s a lot more than just child’s play, it’s more than just paper folding. That’s my pitch for the talk!

How did you first get interested in the topic?

When I started my PhD.  Basically, I was given a rough topic area,  then I was told to go away and come up with a proposal. I was also influenced by mum’s love of origami. She used to do them quite a lot when I was a kid. My supervisor’s area was in structural engineering and it was really by chance that these two fit together.

Had I not been exposed to origami as a child, I don’t know if I would have done by PhD that way. Obviously I didn’t just make my childhood hobby my research, as they are two very different things, but it was great to find how they linked.

My interest were in deployable structures, structures that can package up and unfold… My research group seemed interested and that really led the rest of my research. I guess it just came out of the air and fell into place nicely, really!

Are you going to do an origami demo during your talk?

Not a demo, but I’m thinking of bringing this structure up.

(Holds up red structure shown in image)

I made this with one of my my PhD students. This is the classic pattern, it’s also very big. It’s a flat sheet,or at least, it was a flat sheet which was cut and folded with our laser cutter. This is often used in retractable satellite structures that are sent into space!  It’s fascinating because the structure can be folded very compactly but can also be extended.

Will this cool structure ever be applied to housing in the future?

There are people who are working on that area. I’m not sure about housing as you have to take into consideration different materials and structures… but I know, for instance, there are people who work on these structures in the US army, they’re using these great origami principles to develop rapid deployable shelters!

As an academic, what do you think about the balance of research and teaching?

I think I need both. I don’t think I could do just pure teaching because I do like the freedom that comes with research and investigation. I also love supervising projects with fourth year students and teaching my undergraduate courses. There’s always something new to experience and something interesting to learn from both!

What’s the most rewarding thing about teaching?

There are two parts to my answer. I love being able to share what I discovered with people who also share the same passions and interests that I do. I also love seeing my students get interested in the topic and understanding these concepts. Seeing their faces when the ‘penny drops’ is great.

I don’t know how big your cohord is, but I know that in a lecture hall with 100 aerospace engineering students, you can’t always see every single student’s reactions… But, when you do see them grasping concepts and understanding, it’s truly great.

I’ve been in Bristol for 4 years now and seeing that first full cohort change from year 1 to year 4 is amazing.  To see how much my 4th years developed and changed from the first time I met them when they first got to Bristol is great!

I also learned that the first years tend to ask the toughest questions. They ask questions about our teaching as well as our mindset. It’s refreshing to get asked “How do you really know what you know?” “Why is that the case?”

I sometimes have to think about it and get back to them later!

When you were a student, did you know you wanted to become an academic?

I think I kind of rolled into becoming an academic rather than being inspired by a particular person or moment. Back in my university in the Netherlands I just knew I was good at maths and physics and that engineering would fit for me. I was right!

Do you think students get pressured into worrying about the future?

There certainly are external pressures, like family expectations, university rankings etc… It is valuable to think about your future, of course, but take time to explore your options a bit before going down a certain route. You already made decisions before university with your subject choice at A levels and university, You are on track already.

Engineering students do a lot of summer internships, because it’s seen as an expectation for them to secure a job.  Of course it is important, but you should also use those summers to get out of the house and enjoy yourself, because you won’t have as much time when you’re actually working. Just remember to enjoy the experience!

What were thoughts on your future when you first became a university student?

I picked engineering because I was good at math and physics, but I never really thought I was going to become something specific. I just really enjoyed learning. The engineering degree just seemed to be a good fit and I’m so glad I followed that path! As a student, I didn’t really plan on becoming an engineer, but now that I am an engineer, I can’t imagine myself NOT being one!

Do you have any wise advice for students?

If you’re not sure what you want to be at age 18, that’s fine. Because you shouldn’t. Everybody is different.  Of course, degree systems can make it difficult to switch subjects, but you have to remember that you are not defined by your degree. There are plenty aerospace engineers who then go work in completely different, fulfilling industries.

No one expects every student to be a subject geek when they come into university. If you come in focused, knowing what you want,  that’s good, that’s excellent! But, at the same time, if you come in saying you don’t know what you enjoy, that’s important too. That’s why you’re here, to discuss, to learn and to discover. That’s when you’ll learn what your interest is.

What do you do to relax? I noticed you have a cool bike in this office.

I don’t actually bike… This was a broken bicycle I was supposed to use for one of my classes… But I never got around to fixing it!

So, to relax, I really do like to walk. I find that it is therapeutic to just step outside, leave the office and explore the city. I also walk to work every day and that walk always helps me clear my mind.

What’s your favourite thing to do in Bristol?

Go to North Street in Southville! Quite a few lecturers go there actually. On Saturdays, there are so many things to do. It’s perfect. You can explore bakeries, go to the butchers, local grocery stores and cafés or catch a show at the Tobacco Factory!

I also would recommend going to the Bristol Balloon Fiesta in the Summer. I know that a lot of students are probably home for the summer, but if you get the opportunity, head to the Downs and watch it! It’s absolutely beautiful.


Watch Mark Schenk’s Talk below…


Humans of Bristol University

Tricha Passes

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.

La-rotonde

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…