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It’s going to be an odd Easter break this year, with egg hunts limited to back gardens (if you’re lucky enough to have one!) and with the looming transition to online teaching on all of our minds. If you’re looking for some light reading/ listening to ease you into the new way of working, browse our Easter Reading List for blogs and podcasts from BILT staff, Student Fellows and others in the sector.
Having spent many hours in quarantine fighting enemies in online games, I sat down at my computer last Wednesday to do battle with my greatest nemesis – Adobe graphic design programs. A long time later, I emerged from my room, sweaty and tired, clutching a PDF of an infographic about bringing active learning into digital teaching. During the process, I reflected on the parallels between gaming and digital teaching, and whether it could help design more interesting and engaging online teaching content.
I chose to use the retro 8-bit pixel art style for the infographic for a few reasons. Firstly, I can’t draw. But, perhaps more importantly, also because I was thinking a lot about video games when I was doing my research and writing it up. Partially because they have been my main form of quarantine entertainment (I don’t mean to brag, but I have managed to take Bristol Rovers to the Champions League final in FIFA), but also because they are the ultimate combination of ‘digital’ and ‘active’.
I’ll admit that there is a key element missing there (learning), but video games have managed to turn even the most mundane-seeming tasks into engaging experience. For example: Papers, Please – an engrossing interactive adventure about filling out immigration paperwork, or Death Stranding – where you can live out your wildest fantasies of being a post-apocalyptic postman, or even Euro Truck Simulator (I’ll let you figure that one out). And don’t get me started on the chore-simulator that is Animal Crossing.
Given the time frame for turning teaching digital, developing and coding in depth video games to teach your students about lubricant thickness in rolling element bearings, or Victorian illustrations of Arthurian legend might be slightly out of reach. But there’s certainly things that can be learned, or borrowed from games to make digital teaching as active and engaging as possible.
Variety Is The Spice of Life
All games have their core gameplay loops, whether it be shooting hordes of aliens, jumping from platform to platform, or Euro-Trucking. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only single thing you do, and they will all throw in new mechanics, new puzzles, or something completely different to keep things interesting and exciting.
You’ll probably have a core online teaching method too, like a pre-recorded video, online lecture, or problem sheet. But it’s important not to rely too heavily on a single thing. Consistency is great for sure, and you don’t want to confuse students by constantly throwing different things at them, but it’s easy to make small changes that stop students from feeling like they are living in groundhog day.
Adding quizzes, polls or Q&As during or after a block of teaching is one of the best ways to do this, and there are loads of tools out to design them and send them out to students. They allow students to use a different part of their brain, and consolidate the knowledge they have learned so far. You can also get students to teach each other. Ideally, students would work together in groups, but if this is difficult to arrange, you can split topics up into separate chunks, and have students work on them individually. Then, when they bring their work together, they have a complete overview of a topic. Even small changes, like using a mix of live and pre-recorded lectures goes a long way.
Timing is important too. With the notable exception of Euro Truck Simulator, it’s very rare for a game to make you do the same thing over and over for a large period of time. Games are split into levels, and have cutscenes and minigames to break things up. The same thing goes for teaching. 20-30 minutes is the gold standard for a single task or resource; if something is going to take longer than that, try to add breaks in, like active learning activities to cut content up into smaller chunks.
It might not seem like it, but all games have some level of challenge built in. You may think Euro Truck simulator is easy, but suddenly there’s congestion on the M4, and you’ve not even got enough fuel to make it to Leigh Delamere Services, let alone deliver the cargo to Swindon Depot. That’s what makes them satisfying. You feel like you’ve achieved something when you finish a section, or gain a level – you’ve overcome a challenge.
Active learning should be challenging too. Sitting through a 50 minute pre-recorded powerpoint lecture is difficult, but I’ve never felt particularly proud of myself for finishing one. Learning should be challenging because it makes you use knowledge in new and creative ways to solve problems. Now there’s context behind what you are learning, and you get a sense of achievement for completing something. Quizzes are one of the easiest ways to add a small challenge to lecture-based content, but there’s loads of ways to do it, and now assessment is open book, it’s going to need to test those higher skills rather than just knowledge recall. Smaller tasks embedded into teaching will help prepare students for this.
Challenges don’t just have to mean questions either. Setting work that gets students using creativity, like making posters, designing material for different audiences, making podcasts or revision videos all adds a different type of challenge and gives students a clear goal to work towards.
But, just like a video game, the same difficulty might not be right for everyone. Especially at the moment, with some students in very sub-optimal working environments. Optionality allows students to choose a level of challenge they are happy with, or if you want to set all students the same task, reassuring them that if they don’t do it, or can’t complete it fully, they won’t be penalised for it, and, wherever possible, offering them support.
Although being the greatest manager Bristol Rovers have ever seen is satisfying, so is beating your mate 5-0 with your new European Champions for the third time in a row. Part of the magic of games is getting to interact with your friends, or even total strangers. It’s why all of the most popular games are multiplayer. And it’s important now more than ever with all of us isolated from friends and family.
Online video and voice calling tools can be used to re-create seminars and discussion groups, or facilitate group work even though students can’t be in the same room. But, it’s important to provide a way to interact without using voice or video, like a forum, for students who might not have somewhere quiet to go, or not have access to reliable WiFi. If discussions are going to take place at a specific time, try to capture, or get students to capture, the key points so that students who couldn’t participate don’t miss out.
If you aren’t comfortable organising online discussions, that’s okay too, students will still find their own ways to collaborate. What’s important is giving them a reason to – whether it’s interesting debates or discussions, challenging work that they will need to work together on, peer learning, or specific group work.
I don’t imagine anyone’s going to throw their PS4 away now it’s been made redundant by their exciting active digital teaching. But having the mindset of a gem designer when designing online teaching can help a lot. Even if it’s just asking questions like ‘how long will this take a student to complete’, ‘how much of my teaching is pre-recorded lectures’ or ‘how am I going to keep students engaged now they are sitting 4 feet away from their Xbox, and they’ve just bought Euro Truck Simulator 2?’.
And if that doesn’t work, maybe just parachute every student into Coombe Dingle and have them fight over a single exam paper in a battle royale, Fortnite-style?
Bristol is fortunate enough to have a large population of international students, many of whom come from mainland China. Given the new form of online teaching, this presents some significant challenges in terms of the firewall. Platforms such as Skype, Zoom, Whatsapp and Google are all blocked meaning that online teaching can become extremely challenging.
The difference in time zone is a significant challenge and as many of the instant messaging services are blocked, sometimes this calls for a more staggered approach to teaching. Asynchronous teaching has many benefits; as your time is not spent giving lectures, it frees up some space for feedback on individual or group work.
For asynchronous teaching discussions, there are two key ways that students can participate beyond both the firewall and the time zone. Mini-podcasts are an excellent way that students can practice speaking while constructing an argument and still engage with the reading material. Using their phones or online voice recorders they can use audacity to merge and edit a podcast that you can listen to and give feedback. Set a time limit to ensure that they give clear arguments (and so that lecturers have enough time). They should be able to email this to you via Outlook, which is not currently blocked in China.
Videos are another way to teach in a way that allows students to speak and share their point of view. This can sometimes be harder to share due to the size of the file but can allow for more innovation. Some universities have used videos to gamify asynchronous teaching by creating mini competitions. Who can make the best argument using three props? Explain the reading using an animation or infographic.
Don’t be afraid of voice notes!
Many people already use voice notes in place of text. In a time of isolation, hearing a voice can make a big impact both on a students learning experience and their wellbeing. Having an endless influx of emails can be overwhelming, especially when there is such an influx of bad news. Hearing a familiar voice helps to connect to the material, as well as being a nice change of pace.
Chinese social media
China has a range of social media that is free and downloadable in the UK. WeChat is by far the most popular and will allow you to talk to the vast majority of your Chinese students instantaneously. It also has video and call functions so it will also allow for meetings if students want one on one meetings.
Understandably, not everyone is willing to download WeChat onto their phone but in terms of immediate communication, this is one of the easiest forms.
Tencent Video- If you’re wanting to share video content, Tencent Video is the king of Chinese video streaming. It works in essentially the same way as YouTube but has the added benefit of fun interactive games.
Ask your students
Although the information provided here will give a variety of options different people will want different things from their learning. Sending out a poll is a good way to decide what works for the majority of students and they may have ideas that work for teachers and students alike. In a time of crisis, it is important that students feel like they are being heard so offering avenues that they can reach out is a crucial way to make sure teaching is effective and students feel valued, even if they are 10,000 miles away.
The public outreach
conference was conceived in late December 2019 and was envisioned as the launch
for an annual series of conferences celebrating Wellbeing research and practice
across Bristol. Our (BILT, SU Wellbeing Network and Education Network) hope was
that the conference would create a space for people working on or interested in
mental health and wellbeing to come together, network, collaborate, and
We aimed to galvanise and
centralize wellbeing-related practices, initiatives, and research going on
across the city.
Over the day we were
inspired by a burgeoning community of students, academics, creatives, and wellbeing
practitioners, all working on innovative ways to alleviate mental illness and
barriers to student flourishing in the future.
We were honoured to host Dr Dominique Thompson a TEDX speaker and wellness consultant as our keynote speaker. Thompson spoke sensitively about “Young People’s Mental Health in the 21st Century: A Perfect Storm?” to round up this action-packed day. Themes around perfectionism, competitiveness, and fears of failure tormenting students. As well as reflecting on how these might impede on student performance rather than facilitate creativity and risk-taking.
Alongside our more
research-based activities, participants enjoyed a whole host of creative
workshops from drama therapy to breathing soundscapes, music, and yoga.
The wellbeing themes covered throughout the day
were wide and varied. Contentious issues were not overlooked as participants
contributed to the debate on Drugs, Alcohol, and Mental Health:A
Harm Reduction approach or Zero Tolerance? with Dr Alison Golden-Wright.
We also hosted a deeply honest and touching panel discussion on the theme of coping with Grief and Illness which feels particularly pertinent in these uncertain times of COVID-19. Perhaps this topic is something that the University agenda ought to touch on more often so as to prepare students and staff for the unexpected and uncontrollable facts of life.
and Illness Panel (from left to right): Gigi Auslebrook, Michael Pearson, Stephanie
Clark, Lucy Selman, and Havi Carel.
Gigi Auslebrook, who was representing CoppaFeel’s cancer coffee mornings throughout the day and participated in this panel, spoke openly about her own experiences of grief whilst at University. She writes:
“I thought the conference was great, the turnout was excellent, and I enjoyed participating in the panel discussion. I was so privileged to talk alongside Michael Pearson (deputy head of counselling), Lucy Selman (academic in palliative care) and Havi Carel (philosopher on death and illness). It was great listening to people speaking so openly about grief and illness and essentially normalising the conversation around it, as death feels like such a taboo subject to talk about. Participating in the panel helped me to feel less alone with my experiences which was a relief. I would have really appreciated a conference like this taking place last year when I was going through everything. It would have helped me so much. I would strongly recommend hosting another panel/ workshop/ talk on grief and illness next year as it still affects so many of us! I spoke to Havi more personally after the panel for a more in-depth discussion. It was comforting to hear about her experiences and discuss mine so openly with her. Also, I was able to speak to wellbeing advisors who didn’t know about my cancer coffee morning which was great. Connecting with likeminded people was the most important part.”
One second-year Physics student said the conference helped her “to feel excited about the future of mental health” she went on to explain how the day enabled her to “make connections, make plans, and make stuff happen”. Providing a networking space for wellbeing practitioners across Bristol is a good starting point for enhancing collaboration and creativity across services and support groups in Bristol. Another student interning at Off the Record, a charity supporting young people’s mental health, described how the conference was a useful opportunity to network with local initiatives.
The most rewarding part of the conference from an organisational point of view was entering into enlivening conversations with fellow students and colleagues about what motivated them to attend or participate on conference day. After weeks of back-and-forth emails trying to organise the day, to have some face to face contact with approachable and friendly folk. All of the people I spoke to seemed willing to open up about their experiences, their hopes, and their take-home lessons from the conference.
As we turn towards digital resources to educate our community, may we also remind ourselves of the inherent value of face-to-face encounters, as they can often leave a more lasting impression on people looking for support and connection. After the pandemic subsides, may we better appreciate our interpersonal encounters and public spaces where open dialogue can happen. Let us set time aside from our desktop screens and emails so we can reclaim the power of opening up to each other about “how we are really doing” as so many people were doing in close proximity to one another at the conference (something which we may have taken for granted at the time).
This might not seem like a time of opportunity. Everything is cancelled or postponed, and it seems like our worlds are shrinking (both metaphorically, and physically – something I’m acutely aware of as I’m currently working out of my dad’s bike shed). But there’s a chance here to take a huge stride towards something the university has been inching towards for some time. And it’s more than just a chance – I think in these extraordinary circumstances, there’s a serious need for it.
Co-creation is using students’ feedback, opinions and skills to develop learning and teaching. Like I say, it’s nothing extremely new to the university, but it’s usually on a much smaller scale. These aren’t business as usual times. I’m asking any heads of year, heads of school or anyone else involved in decision making around assessment and teaching to co-create like you’ve never co-created before. I’m mostly talking about final year students, as I think this is the most pressing concern, but this applies to end of year assessment for all students, and the transition to digital teaching for the last few weeks of term.
There’s a mountainous task ahead. Re-designing the in-person, timed, high-pressure, exam-based assessment that a lot of subjects use as a heavy proportion of a student’s final degree classification seems almost impossible. Or finding a way to account for a lack of support and teaching for students who don’t have exams. And not to mention it’s during a time of incredible mental stress on academics and students alike.
There’s plenty of literature out there about moving to online assessment – what works, what doesn’t, how to mitigate against plagiarism, loads of fun stuff. And as academics, it might be tempting to look through research and case studies, talk to other academics in other universities, and come up with a robust plan, backed up by literature and experts alike. But there’s a huge human element here that is never going to get captured without getting students heavily involved in the decision making process from the start.
So please, as soon as possible, start thinking about how you and your students are going to face this together. There’s an endless list of tools you can use to find out what your students want, and generate ideas, without anyone having to leave their house. You can send out polls, you can run q&as, you can use padlet to collect ideas and comments, you can use discord or skype to organise small group discussions. You can even use tools like Blackboard Collaborate to run online workshops. There’s a community of students who are scared, nervous, uncertain about their future, and feeling like huge decisions are about to be made that they have no control over but will have a massive effect on them, in the short and long term. You’ve got the tools to turn that anxiety into real solutions that work for staff and students and might even be able to set a precedent for student-led decision making in the future.
I assume the idea of workshops doesn’t fill you with glee. I know how hard it is to get students to engage with them, and you often only hear from the same sort of students. But I promise you, if you advertise through as many channels as you can, and are honest with students, and tell them you aren’t sure what to do, but want to work with them to figure it out, you will be inundated with students wanting to be involved (and not just the annoying ones who write blogs..).
Everything feels out of control at the minute, but this is our future, and if there’s a chance to have a say in it, we won’t miss it. We want our degree classification to be fair. We want everyone to have a chance to get what they are aiming for. We want it to represent everything we’ve done over the last three years. Every lecture, seminar, lab, late night in the library, hours spent searching for just the right paper; every moment when something finally clicked into place, every lecture watched five times on replay at half speed until we got it; the experiments that went right, the experiments that went wrong; the 9am monday lectures which we really wish we’d gone to more of, the 9am lectures we dragged ourselves into with a lounge stamp on our arm and a pounding headache, and all the other parts of the three or more years that we’ve given to this degree.
Please listen to your students. Trying to manage this chaotic situation must be a nightmare, and just like us, you’re only human and you can only do so much. In your shoes, I can’t even imagine what I’d do. But I know where I’d start.
Let me start by being frank, sustaining motivation to complete University assignments amid a pandemic is obviously a trying situation. It is only human to initially feel unsettled, stressed, and confused in this situation. These feelings do not make you weak or pathetic, they remind you that you are alive and aware of the world around you. Still, many of us do not want this situation to signal the end of our inspiration and motivation to carry on learning; we have come so far through the education system to give up hope so close to the finish line. Yes, it will take some time to sufficiently adjust to the unfamiliarity of these kinds of external contingencies (it’s a marathon not a sprint), but all we can do is try.
For now, I am trying to take it day by day and accept what I cannot control to instead concentrate on what is within my control, as Goethe writes: “Only the present is our happiness”. So how we choose to spend our time right now in these new confines, how we choose to treat our minds, bodies, and other people will make all the difference.
I will start this new series of “What to do when?” by addressing one of the most pressing questions that arises from all the changes to the University curriculum: What to do when asked to work from home?
One caveat I must begin by mentioning is that there will be a whole host of resources and words of advice on the internet that encourage a “one size fits all” method to working from home. Take these with a pinch of salt. Remember, we all develop different approaches to how we work best. One of the most fruitful things I did to overcome my tendency to stress over why I was not following the supposedly “Best” study methods was getting to know myself better by asking myself the right questions. One useful resource for getting to know yourself better and how to grow from your strengths rather than dwell on your weaknesses is the VIA survey on character strengths. It takes a little while to complete but it is useful to know how to enhance your strengths and keep yourself happy in the process. Here is what works for me and might work for you.
Establish a morning that works for you: Set your alarm to wake you up at an hour that gives you ample time to savour your free morning’s before sitting at the desk for the 9AM start. 7AM seems to work for me and a couple of my housemates. To enjoy these mornings, I am starting to try out one activity that I always thought was an “ideal” to start the day but never got around to doing before the rush to University or the office. I usually try to dip into one of my leisurely reads before heading out, but since I do not want to make living and working from home monotonous, I plan on alternating my morning routine to include reading, morning meditation and a walk round the block (to compensate for the commute to work). Perhaps alternating some of these activities might also work for you, perhaps you have some “ideal mornings” of your own that you have been waiting to try out.
Remember to do the basics: Get dressed, eat breakfast, shower. Letting these slip creates a sense of lag in our day. Studies show that clothing choices shape our mood, affect our self-motivation and confidence, and have an impact on our problem solving and creative thinking. If you are not one for breakfast make sure you set aside time to eat when you get hungry away from your computer. Eating mindfully and enjoying your breaks away from work is a sure-safe way to wellbeing.
Create the ‘transition’ space: If, like me and many other students living in private accommodation, you are not spoiled for space, try to settle on a space where you feel you can best transition from work mode to home mode. The space could be the shower, walking around the block again with your headphones on, or dancing to your post-work feel good playlists. Sometimes writing in a loose, stream of consciousness kind of way about what was accomplished and what you were looking forward to doing with your evening helps.
Accept your adaptability: For some of us rigidly scheduling in every hour of the work from home day feels like an insurmountable task. With adaptability, remember that some days it might seem more appropriate to simply follow inspirations and autonomous motivation more freely, whilst others days might require you to rigidly follow the plans and previous orders you set yourself earlier in the day. In any case, stressing over not completing a certain task within a set amount of time can add a burdensome pressure to work fast, rather than work well. Working fast has its drawbacks in terms of inaccuracy, lack of cogency, and not leaving time for critical thinking. So if you’ve hit a wall with the dissertation writing, that’s okay. In fact, it’s normal. Don’t dwell, write down what has made you stop writing and when you might resolve it on a little note. Then dip into one of your other readings for another essay, exam, or experiment.
Be Realistic: Some people find they approach their ‘To-do’ lists with an overly ambitious hope of completing almost all possible tasks, only to feel deflated at the end of the working day. To avoid situations of demotivating disappointment, I prefer to write down a helpful list of ‘Reminders’ rather than a unnerving list of ‘To-Do’s’ on a One Note or a word document. I highlight the reminders in red, amber, green in terms of their priority and strike them through when complete.
Zone Out: At the end of the working day… switch off your computer for a while and tidy away papers, books, and stationery. As the work day draws to a close, do something radically different to your previous work. Variation allows us to break up the repetitive days. Cook, paint, draw, sing, dance, whatever is going to shake off the workload tension. Do what keeps you energized rather than the unhelpful coping strategies like alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs that keep you deflated. Again, this situation is a marathon not a sprint, do the things that will sustain you, not break you.
Reach out and communicate: The most important thing to remember is that your peers, your family, your friends, and your colleagues all share this collective struggle. Open up to them if you have hit a wall, or you are feeling the strain.
This event is not a total catastrophe but it is not nothing much at all either.
Try to situate your perspective somewhere along the middle, strike a balance, and BREATHE.
Owen Barlow, Student Fellow ‘Wellbeing and the Curriculum’
From Thursday 19th March
Professor Tansy Jessop, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, will host a short
“daily digital” on a range of themes relating to online learning and teaching.
Tansy will be joined by a number of colleagues, including from BILT and the
Digital Education Office, on this digital journey. Topics will include
building pedagogic relationships, facilitating discussion, personal tutoring
and supervision, co-creation with students, assessment and more.
is the daily digital?
On some days the
“daily digital” will be a short live event. Live sessions will be
recorded so you can catch up later if you can’t make them.
other days there will be opportunities to engage asynchronously, for example to
review a short video or reading and then join an ongoing online discussion.
long will it take me?
Each “Daily Digital”
should take you between 15 and 30 minutes.
does it start?
programme starts with a live session on Thursday 19th March at
10am, and will last 7 working days.
can I access it?
The “Daily Digital”
will take place in Blackboard. We invite you to enrol on the
Blackboard space for full access to the programme. (Content will be
released over the 7 days)
In Autumn 2019, Professor Lee Marshall from SPAIS was awarded a BILT Teaching Innovation Grant to organise mindfulness lessons for 1st year Sociology students. In this blog post, Lee answers questions about the project.
Why did you set up this project?
There were two
reasons. The first is that, like a lot of academics, I am concerned about the
levels of stress and anxiety that students today seem to experience. I know
from my own experience that mindfulness can be an effective strategy for managing
stress and I wanted to give new Sociology students the opportunity to learn
some techniques that may help them in the future, even if they didn’t consider
themselves ‘stressed’ at the time.
So this wasn’t just for students who were stressed?
No. In fact, I
told the students that if they were suffering from high levels of stress and
anxiety, or if they had experienced any kind of trauma in recent months, then
this scheme may not be appropriate for them and I offered to help them find
more appropriate forms of support available within the university. For this
project, I emphasised mindfulness as a pre-emptive
technique, a way of proactively looking after your mental health rather than
responding to any particular crisis. You don’t just start going to the gym when
you’re recovering from a broken leg. I wanted them to start thinking about
mental health as something that could be positively managed.
What was the second reason?
reason is separate but connected. I have been involved in teaching sociology
first years all of my career and I know that it can be very difficult for
students to create friendship groups with others on their course. This isn’t a
new issue – it was the same when I was a sociology undergraduate many years
ago. The emphasis on independent study within sociology and other subjects like
it means that students spend much less time together than, say, medics, and
this can be a contributory factor to loneliness and anxiety. I hoped that by
creating an extra-curricular activity that they would do with other Sociology
students, it may help create a group identity which reduced any feelings of
How did you organise the project?
I used the money
from the BILT grant to buy in a professional mindfulness company, Positivemeditation.com,
who ran 6 sessions along with a short taster session for people to get a sense
of what it might be like. These sessions ran on Thursday afternoons, and there
were drinks and snacks afterwards to enable more of a social situation.
Initially, I had intended to participate in the mindfulness sessions along with
the students, but then I realised that having an old professor hanging around
may put a dampener on any kind of group bonding! So, in the end I recruited
some third-year sociology students to manage the sessions for me. I publicised
the project via the first-year unit that I teach, which all sociology students
have to take.
Did you get a lot of interest?
There was quite a
high level of interest. When I emailed third years recruiting volunteers to the
project, almost a third of students responded. Some of that would have just
been people thinking about ‘employability’ opportunities, but a great many
talked about what a good idea it was and how mindfulness had helped them deal
with periods of stress and anxiety. After I publicised it to the first years,
about a fifth of them – 30 or so – turned up to taster session. Following that
session, 19 signed up to take the course.
How did it go?
went quite well. The first two sessions were very well attended, and the
students told me that they were enjoying the sessions. But there was then a
break because of reading week, and the strike action seemed to have an effect
on students’ attendance. The later sessions had much worse attendance, between
4 and 8 students.
So do you think the project was a failure?
That’s hard to
answer. Obviously, it didn’t do what I hoped it would do – there is not a
blooming sociology community growing out of this project in the way I hoped.
Nor have I managed to persuade many first years to proactively look after their
mental health. But, at the same time, it is clear that the project was really helpful for those who stuck
with it. The feedback I got at the end was very positive. One student wrote
that “the mindfulness sessions were brilliant. They were run very well and
supportively. I feel like I have new tools in my toolbox to handle being human.”
That’s important, and I am happy that those students got something out of it. So,
I don’t view the project as a failure, but it didn’t succeed in the way I
What lessons have you learned from the project?
The main one –
which I knew from prior experience, if I’m honest – is that if you try to put
on extra-curricular activities, you need an individual – normally a member of
staff – to continually act as a cheerleader, motivating students and
encouraging them to attend, otherwise momentum fades away quickly. This was one
of the problems I was trying to address with the project, but I didn’t resolve
it. When I made the decision to not take part in the actual lessons myself, I
lost the position that might have enabled me to keep more people committed to
the project. If I ran the project again, I would think hard about that
Would you run the project again?
No, at least not
as it was constructed this year. It required too much organisation, and the
financial costs were too high, for the small number of students who benefitted
from it, even though I’m happy for those individual people. I’m also not sure
that one individual, or one individual project, can do much to change students’
orientation to a more proactive management of their mental health, even though
I do think that is really important. It needs a more institution-wide approach,
I think. At the same time, the initial responses I got from the third-year
students especially indicate that there is potential interest in more
mindfulness-style activity, perhaps at a subject or school level. It would be
good if something could be developed that addressed that.
Michael at the local allotment where he gains ideas about how to cultivate intimate relationships with nature that somewhat shape his approach to teaching.
As the February storms raged across an already embattled Britain (weather-wise and politically), Michael and I took refuge in the Multifaith Chaplaincy to contemplate why hope might still be possible for us. After our cups of tea brewed, I congratulated Michael on his BOB award and we promptly entered what would prove to be a fruitful and therapeutic discussion around the relationship between his personal experiences and his teaching.
Michael, from what I have heard from fellow Liberal Artists and your award, your environmental humanities lectures for the “Ideas and Society” module are going down a treat. Do you recall what attracted you to thinking about the connection between the state of the Anthropocene and radical hope?
I can actually trace it back to a particular moment. I used to live up
in the Peak District in Sheffield, this was right after the 2017 General
Election when the Labour Party were close to winning. We were raking over the
ashes of frustrated hope when a friend of mine suggested a book that helped him
come to terms with the sense of despair and mourning that ensues after
uninvited political events. I asked what it was called, he said it’s called “Hope
in the Dark” by Rebecca Solnit.
One of the claims that Solnit defends is that history always moves in non-linear ways. We have this presumption that action A will always lead to action B. But in actual fact, we can never fully comprehend where action A will lead, it can lead us to results so far away that it is simply impossible to fathom.
Rebecca Solnit tells a story of a woman who was part of an anti-nuclear lobby group who started protesting nuclear facilities before scientists found the link between living in close proximity to nuclear activity and deformities in children. This woman said she felt like a weirdo standing outside the White House alone protesting this niche cause. But the leading politician who introduced new regulations for nuclear energy was asked “what gave him the inspiration for devoting his life to this cause?” he replied by saying how he saw a woman protesting outside Washington DC protesting alone and this gave him the motivation to take up the cause with the benefits of access to diplomats.
With this in mind, I think the book reminds humans not to despair if we can’t immediately see a clear positive outcome from an undesired event. History does not work in this linear way. Instead, we ought to anticipate a manifold of different kinds of hope emerging from darkness.
I was curious to know about where you grew up and whether natural
landscapes shaped your relationship with nature? What does landscape mean to
I don’t think I had a conscious appreciation of nature as a young person, as I was totally immersed it as a child. I think most children are just immersed in it. It is an intuitive relationship before it is a critical apprehension.
I grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia. I didn’t really have much access to the natural world there. But when I was 10 my father moved to a very rural part of Australia and we lived on a canal in a small boat and you could take it out in the morning and see the Dolphins before starting your day, that was something I valued. To have the whole ocean ten minutes away from you was pretty special.
I recall you integrating trips out to the sea into your teaching? How was that experience for you and the students?
Oh yes. That trip to Severn Beach was part of a “Teach Out” during the industrial action last year. It cost as little as £1.50 for students to go and learn outside the the classroom, which meant I did not have to cross the picket line. I guess there was no plan to that trip because it was consciously about going out with no aim. Not going to bolster marks for the essays but go to see what the light was doing, what the ocean was doing. Once you give up the learning and teaching ambitions, you create a more informal space that can help students feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts with others. I think the main outcome of the trip was the chance to notice and appreciate the natural world.
This seems like a mindful experience, something of immense value in the context of low levels of wellbeing among students. In line with thinking about students as subjects, how might learning about hope affect students who are experiencing a volatile era of climate uncertainty and political unsettlement?
The moment you talk about hope, you carry a great burden of
responsibility. This is because you are offering something everyone (including
students) is looking for. We don’t usually understand hope to involve critical engagement
but talking about hope without any critical engagement at all can be a dangerous
undertaking. The idea of a critical hope, not a naive or unjustified
hope, but a hope that places demands on you seemed more appropriate for my
teaching. An unreflective kind of hope can confiscates you of your energies. The
“I am hopeful, so I don’t need to take action” mindset.
The critical hope I want to teach is a hope that increases your
obligations not diminishes them. I might hope for something to come to pass,
for a change, but I actively participate in the change I am looking for, this
is think requires more reflection.
What has been
giving you hope lately? What are some of the boundaries to your sense of hope?
Last week I had an interesting discussion with students. We were talking
about T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland. This poem, written in 1922, seems remarkably
relevant, in the context of Australian Wildfires and declarations of a climate
emergency. The group dialogue around the meaning of the poem came to be seen as
a despairing given our current climate. One of my students raised a perceptive
thought in the discussion, he said “My generation is the first generation to
become aware that an open future may not lie ahead.” We got to this point where
we sense that the only predicable thing now is unpredictability and exposure to
threat. It seems like these were the only things that we can now count on.
Regardless of the brute reality, we went back to the poem and at the very end of the poem after all this drought (spiritual and ecological) there is a moment of thunder in the mountains and a trickle of rain follow. It was quite a relief to get to this moment after the constant imagery of immense barrenness. We latched onto that moment of the poem and said if it can rain after all this barrenness. We said there is still a glimmer or a gleam of hope here; there still seems to be the possibility for a liveable future. The new future won’t resemble old ideals of the pastoral and organic harmonious relations between man and nature. But if it can still rain after the devastation of this poem, then there is a responsibility to work towards that glimmer. It is not an indifference to the catastrophe but a motivating phenomenon.
I think that is the notion of hope that Rebecca Solnit is working with
when she reminds us that “In the word emergency is the word emerge“.
Many of us do struggle to see the “emergence” in the midst of all this
I can understand why activists and young people can get burnt out really quickly. We always come up against the formidable immovability of entrenched capitalist systems. There is this juxtaposition between the insights of possibility and the rigid status quo. The possibility of freedom seems in sight but always meets the perpetual threat of imprisonment and constraint. Sometimes we have to just sit with this tension between the open-endedness we all desire and the immovability of the systems to recognize that amid all the uninvited outcome some form of hope lies ahead in the future despite this feeling so faraway and distant at times.
The bit of that story I enjoyed most was the fact that you are learning
from students as well as students learning from you. What new teaching methods do
you hope to bring to students in the future?
I have recently been taking a course with an herbalist called Nathan in Stroud. Before we even asked what can these plants do for us, Nathan asked me to take a willow branch and dance with it, or watch the flower underneath the light, we had to get to know the environment we were learning about in an embodied way. I have been trying to introduce strands of Nathan’s thinking into my teaching in a limited way, as there is only so much teachers can do within the confines of a seminar room. Trying to introduce the possibility of joy and of activity and of whole body concentration into the learning experience is something I want to do more of, especially considering the body is such an integral part of the knowing experience, we are not just “brain in vats” at University. We cannot develop by mere comprehension of abstract concepts without any actual experience to resemble some of this abstract learning.
For instance, in my Liberal Arts ‘Ideas and Society’ class, I recently took students to Royal Fort Gardens just to be present with nature for a little while, to sketch our surroundings, to write poetry about our time in nature. We were not merely reading about trees and their accompanying naturalistic concepts, but we were just standing under the canopy and using our own lived experience to tune into the value of nature. To offer a memorable experience that fosters new ways of learning.
I believe it should not seem “odd” to go to the park and just look at
the tress. We are whole bodied people with diverse experiences and different
ways of learning from tactile learning, to auditory, to visual I think we
benefit from offering diverse ways of learning.
It does seem odd, especially because most of academia rejects mind-body
dualism and turns towards thinking about perception from the standpoint of embodied
existence. Like why are we still employing the same teaching methods such as large
lecture halls, and chalk boards which have been within the University since its
inception? I believe the teaching methods ought to evolve with the advances in knowledge
about the human condition.
Yes, there seems to be a lag between what we intellectually know about the conditions for human condition and the way we teach. I would like to see more encouragement about taking up teaching methods based on the starting premise of human embodiment.
Who influenced you most whilst at University?
My most influential lecturer was in Brisbane when I took an optional
English course whilst studying Economics. His name was Peter and he made the
class fun and made students laugh. He had a way of getting students actively
involved in the emotions of the book, I still think that was a valuable
experience that still resonates with me.
If there was something serious happening in the book, he had a way
of making students feel it, to be with the suffering of the character:
intellectually and personally.
I like that idea because I get the sense that this kind of teaching can
create an opportunity to connect both between peers and between staff and
students. What are your thoughts on “professional distancing” at University?
Nathan often says, “You can only work through difficult and
traumatic experiences if you feel completely safe in the company of who you are
sharing these emotions with.” I think there is something worthwhile in the
difficult exploration of emotions in the classroom and investigating literature
provides a space for that. I do think we are shying away from troubling
emotions in the classroom and sometimes I think it might be productive to
engage with these emotions. The intellectual and emotional do seem interwoven when
it comes down to engaged learning.
On an individual case-by-case basis we not only want to be a tutor, we want to be a human who is “fully there” and “present” with students. But on a practical level, academics are still responsible for a large number of students. I guess what it really comes down to is having more staff to match the number of students who will yearn for fuller relationships.
I actually just signed up for the Alumni Network where we can talk about very human questions with students rather than negotiating essay marks and administrative concerns. The e-mails we receive the majority of the times tend to cover the latter, so the network offers a space for a fuller relationship with students. I hope the BOB lecture also provides an opportunity to connect with students in a more informal way.
Last week we hosted the third of our Digital Accessibility events, this time with Dafydd Henke-Reed, Senior Accessibility Consultant with AbilityNet. Dafydd has been diagnosed with Autism and Dyslexia and spoke about his personal experiences of Neurodiversity.
was engaging and open about his experiences growing up, going to University and
the technology he uses day to day. From the very start he highlighted that
Autism is a spectrum and that we were hearing what Neurodiversity means to him.
From Cognitive Brick Walls to being horrified when friendly lecturers asked him to move forward from the back row of a lecture theatre, we heard about the barriers and obstacles he had faced.
What stood out for me…
“Dyslexia could be solved with tools; Autism was about learning how to thrive in a seemingly hostile culture.”
Dafydd had refused support related to Autism at University. Tactics such as large yellow “appropriate allowance when marking” stickers felt like a brand. This is pertinent; many students may not disclose their “disabilities” due to previous experience or because they find allowances intrusive or counterproductive. In fact, with conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder may not consider it a disability in the first case, it’s just the way they are. If we are to be truly inclusive, then we need to design our learning experience to remove barriers and everyone benefits.
“Come over for group study and we’ll get beers and pizza in? Hell no!”
spoke about how he found groups and teamwork challenging. He’ll use digital
tools like Slack or instant messaging to communicate rather than walking to a
colleague’s desk. He also praised electronic tickets (“I won’t lose them”)
He showed us the Speech to Text (STT) and Text to Speech (TTS) systems he uses every day along with the spelling correction functionality.
Do’s and don’ts
The excellent UK Gov “Do’s and Don’ts” guides were given a name check again, this time for Dyslexia and Autism. If you haven’t seen them, check out these lovely visual guide posters. I think they should be printed out in every office!