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Isobel Hirst is a third year Biochemistry student who completed her year in industry last year. She is one of the students who was selected to represent Bristol University at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research, which has been postponed. I caught up with Isobel to chat about how she feels her experience in industry, and learning through research methods, has helped her in her undergraduate degree.
The first question is, how did you choose the project you were researching?
I applied to it – it was already planned out by my research group that I joined. And I applied to do that project at that place for my year in industry. I basically chose the project because I thought it’d be a cool place to do a year in industry, and then this project was the one I could do with a Biochemistry degree.
So where did you do the project?
It’s called Diamond Light Source and it’s a synchrotron, it’s the UK’s only synchrotron. It’s a little bit like CERN, the Hadron Collider. So it uses electromagnets to accelerate electrons around a big ring that’s hundreds of meters in diameter. And the electromagnets bend the path of the electrons so that they go in a circle as opposed to a straight line. Every time they turn a corner, every time they’re bent, they lose a bit of energy and they release it as x-rays which are really, really bright. Then you can use those bright x-rays to do all sorts of structural things. For example, I was firing the x-rays at protein samples. When they interact with the sample, they get scattered, well diffracted, so you get a diffraction pattern. Then you have a detector which records this pattern as lots of dots and then people, and computers, can do really complex maths with the dots and figure out which atoms were where in the protein sample. In that way you can use the diffraction pattern to find out the structure of proteins. My project was trying to find the structure of one specific protein.
What skills do you think conducting a research project has given you?
Loads! It sounds a bit basic but time management, but next level time management! Because everything’s really time sensitive. If you accidentally leave something for like 40 minutes, that’s supposed to be half an hour, then it doesn’t work. But then also, you don’t really have enough time to only do one thing at a time. I’ve learned how to do lots of things at once. And also to keep track of all those things so that I don’t forget about them.
Definitely being more confident, because at the beginning, I would literally never want to do anything without asking someone ‘Oh, do you think this will work?’ Or ‘if I do this, will it be okay?’ But it’s really annoying for people if you keep doing that. And, they don’t generally know either, they’re like ‘yeah? Probably?’! So, I definitely learned to just do it. I would always have that gut reaction that I should ask them first and then I’m like, nope, just do it and it might be fine!
Oh, and scientific writing as well. I had to write a report, and I’ve done another research project this year. So now I’ve written two proper, research paper style reports. And I made a poster, and I’ve done two presentations. It’s helped my scientific literacy, giving me chance to talk about my research in lots of different formats.
That’s great! What did you enjoy about your research project?
I really enjoyed most things about it. Where it was, Diamond, because it’s the UK’s only synchrotron, people use it for biochemistry, but they also use it for engineering, physics, chemistry, archaeology, even art history, because they can date paintings with it. And people come from all over the world and from lots of different disciplines to use it. It feels like quite a futuristic and exciting place to be and you are surrounded by lots of different academics all the time. I felt like I was literally in the world of science, which was really cool. I think what was great was all the opportunities – I got to go to a music festival. Diamond had a science stall where people could come and put marshmallows in vacuums and look at little soft toy microbes and things like that. I got to hear Richard Dawkins speak at that festival as well. Sorry, this is not a very science-y response, I more enjoyed meeting all the people!
No no, it’s good to hear all the different benefits of doing a research project. Learning through research methods isn’t just about getting better at your subject, it’s also about gaining different practical and transferable skills. Next question – what challenges did you face in your project?
Ooh, well, actually, I think my supervisor had a plan of what she wanted my project to be when she applied to have a student, but it wasn’t super detailed. She sort of had the beginning of this plan and she thought it would probably work, so I was supposed to be working on one specific protein. But that turned out to be a lot more complicated than she thought. I spent about 9 months out of 12 trying to do the first part of this project. Then in the last few months it actually started working, but that was doing something slightly different. So, for most of my project, the difficult thing was dealing with the fact that everything I tried didn’t work, or didn’t do what I wanted it to do. I was trying to sort of purify a sample of a protein, and I wanted it to be stable and dissolved in the solution. And so I spent months trying to do lots of different things to the protein and to the solution it was in to make it stable and dissolved. And everything I tried didn’t work or it would like work a little bit and then I’d get a little bit further on and then it would not work.
So you definitely learned perseverance then!
Yeah, my supervisor kept being like ‘oh well, this is what real research is like, you’re learning about resilience!’. I also had to get more confident. I had to deal with the fact that things going wrong was making me even less confident. I didn’t really trust that things going wrong is just the way it is, I thought I was doing something wrong. Even though my supervisor was reassuring me, in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘oh but I did that wrong and I did this wrong’. I do think a more experienced researcher would have got results faster, but I was basically doing the project to learn anyway, so it really was fine. I think the hardest thing was dealing with my own insecurities and just keeping going, even when it wasn’t working, and I thought it was my fault.
But you overcame these difficulties?
Yeah, it did turn out to be quite a good lesson because for my research project this year, I was way more okay with things going wrong. And I learned that a lot of the time when things go wrong, it’s because people have made mistakes but people make mistakes all the time and that’s okay. So before, I used to beat myself up a bit when I would make mistakes, but then this year, if I made a mistake, I would just be like, ‘Oh, whoops.’
Sounds like a healthy way to deal with mistakes! Did you find conducting a research project beneficial to your learning, and why?
Definitely. Having done my year in industry and applied a lot of what I learned previously in lectures to real life, coming back and doing lectures and exams again this year, I found the stuff so much easier to learn. It’s much easier to remember because I can actually imagine doing it in a real lab. And it’s much easier to understand why people do certain things. In our exams, we sometimes get given a hypothetical situation such as, ‘this protein of this size has been discovered and like, what do you think it might do? How would you find out what it does?’ That was one of the essay questions I had to do in my January exams, and I didn’t really know what lectures it was supposed to be related to. Maybe it wasn’t any. But I could imagine being in a lab and figuring out what to do and I remembered conversations that I’d had with other people where they were speculating about how to solve certain problems. And I feel I can apply my knowledge a lot better now because I have a bit of a context to do it in. I guess, giving real life context to teaching makes it way more interesting and way easier to remember. I got all of that from doing research-based teaching.
Do you prefer being assessed through research projects or exams, and why?
I think I actually prefer being assessed by exams because I’m better in exams than in coursework, because you just sort of go in and do it. Whereas with coursework, I faff about a lot and the way you end up being assessed for research projects is to write up a report. Maybe if it was a presentation, that would be okay because that’s a one-time thing like an exam. I have been assessed by reports I’ve done for research projects, and I’m glad I did them because the process of writing it all up is quite interesting and fun, and I’ve learned a lot from it. But I think being assessed adds quite an element of stress to your research project, because if you know you’ve got to produce a report for a mark then you’re like ‘oh what if I don’t get the results, will I fail?’. So I think I prefer a mixture. In terms of how well I do, I probably prefer exams, but then in terms of learning experience, then probably both.
Fair enough. Last question – do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share about conducting research projects as part of your degree, or using research projects as a method of learning?
I think that they’re really, really good. I learned more in my year in industry than I did in the first two years of my degree. It’s also made me enjoy my third year more as well because I am better at it. I’m more confident. And also, it was cool to be back at uni again because working full time was hard. I can just go climbing in the middle of the day again! But that’s not about learning. There’s some stuff you have to kind of learn by yourself, rather than being taught or told them. And I think it’s really valuable to be able to learn those things for yourself in the context of an undergraduate degree, where everything is quite safe and there’s a lot of support. Because the alternative is learning those things when you’re in a PhD or a job, and there’s much more riding on it and there’s less supervision. It’s valuable to learn the basics in your undergraduate degree through research projects.
The walls of Hermes’ office were covered in beautiful art – which we later found out had been painted by his dad. It was a lovely space to be in as we sat down early on a Monday morning and talked about his love for teaching.
Could you give us a quick preview of what you Humans of Bristol Lecture will be about?
I will be a very long story, told in a compact form. It’s about how people like Newton, Alan Turing, Michael Phelps, or even Boris Johnson, are all connected. And how, in particular, mathematics is the thread that connects all these stories. People are expecting me to talk about sperm, because that’s what I research, but what I really want is for the audience to come out with a view of something which is much bigger, which connects all of us and many branches of Science.
Do you think that teaching is more engaging and people find it easier to understand when it’s explained through a story rather than just as disconnected facts?
Yeah, because as human beings, we don’t like to be just told information. I say to my students: ‘mathematicians are not calculators; we are creative beings’. And mathematics is a technique that you use, like when you explore your creative space through painting. So, stories are a way to get through to students. I don’t see our work here in Engineering, or Mathematics, or Biology, to be any different from the Humanities, in which people work creatively. Creation is literally to merge things, and to bring to life. This is what we try to do, and stories are the basic way to do that. Otherwise, you lose the meaning behind mathematics.
For example, when we teach Calculus, students have to do hardcore calculations. This can sound really boring at first. But you could connect this to a story, ask where this calculation comes from and where it leads to, and discuss the impact that these calculations could potentially have in your life. Stories are a way for us to empathise, and that’s the main difference between humans and data.
We live in an era of data, right? Data science is everywhere. You’re flooded with data at this very moment, every single detail here is data. But humans do something different – we interpret this data, throwing away the things and the things we do want and then we put a meaning to that. We love to give a meaning to things that are meaningless. For example, when you see a beautiful view, it’s literally just data. Just light that’s coming through to your eyes. But if you think of it like that, it’s too dry, and what’s the point? So, we put a meaning to it and appreciate the view.
It’s the same with university. It’s not just information, it’s not just a degree. So, we to connect with our students, because it’s more than just data. We tell stories to teach, because it’s more than just the formulae.
Do you find sometimes that your students find teaching like this a little bit strange, especially if they are used to more traditional facts-only teaching?
Yes, sometimes, but I want them to see the bigger picture. Unfortunately, the everyday aspect of any job can be very hard. You have to have the same enthusiasm and motivation and face the same pressures every day. It’s the same when you’re studying a course – the calculations will be difficult, they will be complicated, the students will not understand them at first and they will struggle. But teaching can help to change this perspective. It’s all relative, right? So if you’re looking at the same thing every day, why not try looking at it from a different angle? We could look at it from a different perspective and ask, is this the same? Is th another learning? So really, teaching can change the lens that you’re looking through and help you to see your subject differently.
But you can’t necessarily do this every day. It’s something that as a lecturer you have to attempt and try out. I often think, ‘how many times have I already taught this?’ and ‘how can I learn something new from this?’. So, every time I teach a lecture, it’s always completely different. I teach 250-350 students, it’s a huge audience, but every cohort has a different personality each year. You have to treat them as individuals. For instance, I like to make jokes, but the same jokes don’t work every time with every group. It’s amazing, because each lecture then is unique and private to those students. It also depends how I feel on that day. I understand that my students are all different, and they understand that I’m just human.
I remember one day that was really funny, it was an absolutely mad day where I had meetings back to back and I had no time. I decided to cook some really nice Chinese noodles for lunch. By the time it came to the lecture, I really wanted to eat, but I didn’t have time. And I thought, maybe I can have lunch whilst I give the lecture? So I asked they students if it was alright and they said yes. And then I was talking in the lecture and I’d be like ‘wait, wait one minute while I have a bite of my lunch’, in the middle of 250 people, and they found this hilarious but I was just really hungry! But if you think about the alternative, and I hadn’t eaten, I would have been grumpy. I wouldn’t have been able to eat until like 6pm on my busy schedule, and that’s not sustainable, so it was so nice that the students were like ‘actually you know, it’s fine, he’s only human as well’ and there is this type of understanding between us.
It’s great that you’re showing the students that you’re just human. A lot of what we try to do with the Humans of Bristol University is to try and bridge the gap between students and staff, to show that we’re all just human.
Exactly, exactly. Another example was when I came up with a hand signal between me and my students. Because there are so many engineering students who know me, but I don’t always recognise them, or know their names. But if I go to the harbour, or the gym, they will be there. I thought it would be nice for us to have a way to identify each other. So I introduced this: I said, how about we have a pact between us, like a secret hand signal, so if you see me in the street, you do it, and I recognise and we can say ‘we’re family, I know you!’. And they really do it! If I go to the supermarket, I see them there, and they do it! It’s amazing. Sometimes when I’m really stressed, and having a bad day, and then I see someone do the signal, it really changes my mood you know, in that moment. It’s almost like there is a connection.
I think it’s difficult sometimes, for international students, with the different landscape and different culture and everything. But I’m the same, I’m married to an English woman and she works in Classics, and I always bring a lot of stories from my background. Especially about language, because I’m not always really good with how I express myself [in English]. But I started seeing students be more confident with me and coming to me after class. Especially sometimes in teaching, a word will come to me in Portuguese, and then I make a joke, and teach them a little bit about it, so they understand why I did it. I think all students can empathise with me, both the English and the overseas students, because I am a little bit of both. I’m Brazilian, but I’ve been here for 10 years. And I’m having a baby(!), who will be half English and half Brazilian, so I understand these problems.
It must make such a difference to students who have a dual-nationality identity crisis, or for those whose first language isn’t English to see someone talking openly about it. Clearly your students appreciate you and the way you teach – you only came to Bristol this year and have already been nominated as a Best of Bristol lecturer!
For me it was really a big surprise. But I had decided to take some risks. I’ve had a lot of teaching experience in the past at different places, and I’ve always been more cautious. But now I’ve reached the age where I know that students will be able to manage – they are very resilient and you don’t have to treat them like school children. You can experiment and try new things. I think I have a relationship with them and I think they respect me so I can actually take more risks.
For example, in their final lecture I made them a song. I took the lyrics from Wonderwall and changed them to put the mathematical equations in instead. I called it Mathemagical! At school in Brazil I had teachers that were very talented with a guitar and would sing us songs to teach us history. I always wanted to do it, but I never quite had the skills to do it. Especially for 700 people! What I’m trying to say is, it might sound that I’m very confident, but no, that was a risk. But the students made me feel very secure. It was pretty embarrassing, you know, I said, guys “we’re all going to sing together”. So I put the song on the projector and they did! That was wonderful. And again, it’s one of these things I don’t think I will manage to replicate. It was very organic for this particular group for this particular year. But it’s a nice thing because it’s special, isn’t it?
What advice would you give to lecturers at Bristol if they’re thinking of taking risks in their lectures, but aren’t feeling confident to do it?
To trust the students, because I think they are the best thermometer. Especially when they understand that staff are human. There are many ways we assess our teaching through feedback and forms. Students will come and go, but their feedback stays. Imagine if you’d been lecturing for 30 years and you receive feedback that says you are a ‘bad lecturer’. This might be true or maybe not, but this would be devastating for the lecturer.
If you take the perspective that we are all human, you can see that students are , and academics are. When they meet these two different worlds collide, and we can forget the human side of it. I think the best way to deal with this is to make yourself knowable as a person as well, not just a lecturer
I think a better model is just for everybody to be nice to each other. If someone is not managing to do something, try to be a bit more generous, it could be because of something you don’t know anything about, and you will not understand. We are all made of hundreds of crazy connections. But when you start to see students as attendance percentages or grades, then you lose their whole story.
I always tell my students: ‘you think I’m very clever because I’m teaching you this year, but the only difference between me up here and you sitting there is that I was born earlier.’ What’s the difference? It’s time. You can’t change time. Students will make mistakes, but they grow really fast in three years, four years. PhD and postdoc students, for example, if they stay in academia, will be the next lecturers So, you have to see the students as people and know that they’re very powerful. Many people are very clever here, but there will be always be people who are cleverer.
It’s really nice to hear someone talk passionately about teaching, as sometimes it feels like we’re such a research focused university.
I have to say that I’ve always loved teaching. My Dad is an artist and when I didn’t know what to do in my life he would always say ‘what is your service? What is the thing you’re going to give back?’. Teaching for me is the only way to have real impact in real time. All the other things I do, like research, they’ll take three weeks to three years to reach anywhere. And let’s say we published many papers, fantastic. But then again, they will take a few years and maybe a handful of people will read them. The real impact is generated here in universities as we teach students.
So the final question we’ve been asking all the Best of Bristol lecturers is: if you could make one change to learning and teaching here at Bristol, what would it be?
I think it would be to add some kind of really creative event where students and lecturers could be on the same level, so you can forge connections. What I would love is to have connections that will potentially last over time because students graduate and then we don’t hear from them and don’t’ find out what they get up to. So, not really for teaching, but basically for making friends. Let’s do pottery or something!
I think that would be really great. I spoke to a postgraduate student for a Humans of Bristol interview and she said when she was an undergrad she felt like she didn’t have any connection to her lecturers, but when she started her postgrad they treated her like she was on their level.
This is a criticism for all the universities I think across the planet – they want to grow too much. Have more seats for the students. Grow more and more, have fewer and fewer ways to connect. I don’t think the infinite growth, capitalist growth, is made for humans. I think this will be a big mistake. I think the most successful universities will be the ones that we will still feel some kind of connection too. Because, really, the information you learn at university, anyone could find in their own time. You could study at home without a university. But here, the connections we make and the stories we hear, that’s the true learning at university. The exams you do you’re going to forget. But the important thing is how you learned and that you can do it by yourself. Here we are all just a bunch of humans learning together – why don’t we embrace this fully?
I met Andy in his office in the Life Sciences Building, and enjoyed a panoramic view of the ASS Library, talking about Best of Bristol, recognising that things don’t always go the way you plan (especially working as a scientist in the field), and how (re?)finding our love of nature might be the key to fighting the climate crisis.
Could you tell me a little bit about what your research group does and how that led into the reef acoustics research you’ll be talking about in your BoB lecture?
Our research has two main themes. The first is pure behavioural ecology, predominantly looking at social behaviour and vocal communication. Specifically, how vocalisations are used to mediate cooperation and conflict, and how animals eavesdrop on other species and learn to translate their foreign languages to gain additional information. We study these topics mostly with animals in their natural habitats, including the Dwarf Mongoose Research Project in South Africa and various bird species in Africa and Australia. I’ve worked on these general themes since my PhD, which rather frighteningly means for nearly 20 years now!
But then 10 or 11 years ago, we were interested in trying to work on a more applied subject; something that has more practical relevance and that ties to conservation. Around that time, Steve Simpson arrived from Edinburgh to work here in Bristol and we happened to have our first children within a couple of months of each other. So, we ended up getting to know one another by walking with babies in slings across the downs and occasionally stopping in a pub to have a pint. We talked about our backgrounds and research interests – Steve’s a marine ecologist and fish biologist, with a focus on underwater acoustics; my background is as a behavioural ecologist, with those interests in social behaviour and vocal communication – discussing what we could potentially work on together. And, we decided to investigate man-made noise as a major, but relatively little-considered, global pollutant. At that point, a decade ago, very little research had examined the impacts of noise on anything other than humans; in the oceans, there had been a few studies on cetaceans, but hardly anything on fish or invertebrates despite the huge numbers of species and their importance. So, we decided to set up a research programme to do that – looking at the impacts of noise, particularly in marine environments.
Our initial experiments were short-term playbacks of sound in aquaria. But, both Steve and I are field biologists at heart, and ideally you want to be studying animals in their natural habitats for ecological validity. So, a lot of the work that we have done since on the impacts of man-made noise takes place on coral reefs. Coral reefs are naturally very noisy places (many animals produce sounds for one reason or another), but there’s also lots of noise generated by humans from things like motorboats. While we’ve been out on those reefs studying noise impacts, we’ve also witnessed the devastation caused by global warming: the bleaching of the corals. We’ve shown that bleaching then changes the soundscape because species that make noise move away. Suddenly the reef sounds very different and that has knock-on consequences for the recruitment of fish too.
A lot of our work now is therefore considering how human actions change coral reef soundscapes and what impacts that has for wildlife. That can be pretty depressing, but we are also working to find and test potential solutions to mitigate the problems and improve the situation moving forward.
And one of the ways to improve the situation is by using noise to encourage some of the species that have been lost from the reef back?
Yes, absolutely! In terms of the soundscape, it’s worth giving a little bit of background. Coral
reefs are inherently noisy places. Despite what Jacques Cousteau said about a ‘silent world’, the underwater world is really noisy and no more so than on coral reefs. They’re the cities of the ocean – bustling environments where fish and invertebrates are generating lots of sounds to communicate with one another. Collectively, that means each reef has a unique sound that it generates. And those soundscapes are vital to many species.
Soon after hatching, lots of marine creatures head out into the open ocean for a period of weeks or even months, and then come home to a reef for the rest of their lives. One of the cues that they’re using to find a home is sound. With bleaching events, the soundscape is changing and becoming diminished, and we have found with experiments that is less attractive to those returning tiny creatures; they are less likely to recruit to and to settle in areas with degraded soundscapes compared to healthy ones. However, there’s a possibility that you can try and reverse that by enhancing the current sounds with playback, something we call acoustic enrichment. That’s playing back healthy reef sounds on more degraded habitats, to boost the sound of them. What we found in an experiment we ran for 40 days is that if you do that, not only do you initially attract more fish, but that the community rebuilds faster. You’re kickstarting the recovery process on these degraded reefs. It’s not a silver bullet solution – you need to do it in combination with other restoration efforts – but if you can accelerate the initial recovery processes and provide hope. You need those fish and those invertebrates to help the coral by cleaning away the algae and creating space for the corals to grow. Corals alone can’t rebuild themselves or, if they do, it’s incredibly slow; you need this synergy going on, so you get this positive feedback loop.
Even if such restoration methods are small-scale, they are important; you need to build incrementally. If we think that the only solution is to solve climate change, the climate crisis, then we’re in trouble, because that isn’t going to happen overnight. It requires nations to agree to something and that isn’t going to happen quickly. But, if you can start making a difference locally, then that gives hope to people locally and then more broadly, that things could be better. Also, for the species that are there, you’re potentially building some level of resilience. So, although you might be acting in one small regard, if it builds resilience for bigger problems then that could have positive consequences, and potentially give us breathing space to solve the bigger issues. If everything dies, before we can solve the big issues, then it is hopeless. And we don’t want it to be hopeless. There are good reasons to try to make a difference at a localised level whenever possible.
Are you able to bring your research into teaching? And do you find that that’s useful for students and for yourself?
Yes, absolutely. Obviously, it depends a little on what you’re teaching. When you’re teaching first year classes, that’s about general principles and broad-scale ideas, but I still try and bring in a little bit of research because you want it to be exciting and inspiring. As you go through different years, increasingly it’s more and more research-led. In terms of third-year courses, you’re hoping to describe examples of cutting-edge research as part of what’s going on.
I think it’s really nice if at least some of those examples are your own, because then students are not seeing you as just someone standing at the front delivering this material and walking out again. You’re telling them about your story, and your research and your anecdotes, and what you’re doing in the field and what you’re doing research wise. And that, I think, personalises it and makes a better connection and hopefully makes it even more exciting, rather than it being in the abstract. Science is not just about the hypotheses, the methods, the findings; it’s also about the journey to get there, including all the things that went wrong. I really like putting those kinds of stories and our own research into lectures. Whether the students like hearing about it, you’d have to ask them…
Well I enjoy hearing about it, even just the little things like getting us to sing happy Birthday to your daughter helps to make more of a personal connection (Andy got his entire 3rd year Social Evolution module to sing his daughter Happy Birthday at the start of a lecture – apparently she loved it, but not quite as much as the unicycle she was given).
I think that’s half the joy of teaching – it’s not just about imparting knowledge. Because, if it was just about imparting knowledge, I could send you all an email or video-record a lecture, stick it up on Blackboard and be done with it. I think, or at least hope, that lots of teaching is actually about inspiring, rather than imparting facts. You can read books and you can read papers and you can gain facts. If all I do as a lecturer is give you a bunch of facts, that’s pretty dry; it’s also not really that different from finding it out for yourself. To me, it’s much more about trying to inspire a love of the natural world and of biology. If that love, and an understanding of the importance of the natural world, is there then that hopefully pervades the thinking of people whatever walk of life they go into. Not just those who are going to be biologists, but those who become lawyers or business leaders or financiers. If the next generation of decision-makers have an understanding of the natural world and its importance, then we have a better chance of rescuing the planet before it’s too late.
You can do the research, but you need people to put it into practise. You can shout from the rooftops about the problems, but we need to convince big businesses and governments to make some fundamental changes. Convincing them is much easier if embedded in those companies and in those walks of life are people who have an inherent understanding and love of the natural world, because then you’re not beating against a closed door; you’ve got a starting point. So, I think a lot of that is what the teaching is about, rather than just delivering another set of facts. To be honest, it would be very dull if lecturing was all about just that too. It’s fun to be able to throw in current ideas, your own stories and to have more of a dialogue with students.
Do you think that education about the climate crisis and teaching that gives people a love of the natural world needs to be embedded in all courses, not just subjects like Biological Sciences?
Yes, I would think so. Ultimately, the climate crisis is one of the most pressing problems, if not THE most pressing problem, for the human population. It’s such an enormous challenge, that we clearly aren’t going to solve it only with a small cohort of people doing research – we need people in all walks of life to have an understanding of how major this problem is, and if a solution is going to come, it isn’t going to be one thing that needs changing. It’s going to be a multitude of different things that are going to have to change. And that means all levels
from individuals right up to governments. And as I said, if that’s going to be the case, then you need people in all walks of life to have an understanding, and ideally a love of, the natural world. So that doesn’t mean all of a sudden everybody has to do a year of biology and global change. But, I think it is something that probably needs greater air-time, across subjects, rather than just being in biology or geography or environmental science.
Even within Biological Sciences, we’re looking to increase that level of training compared to even a decade or five years ago. We need to embed more of those ideas right from the start of our degree programmes and then all the way through rather than it just being the occasional course or it being something you hear about on the side. We’re constantly adapting degree programmes, as any department will do, but this is one really clear thing where we’re ramping up through all the years. However, I agree with you, that some of that thinking and training should be apparent more broadly than in just biological degrees.
Do you find that the Biological Sciences department is quite responsive to change and you’re able to adapt the curriculum to respond to these kinds of things quite well?
You can think about that at two levels. In terms of individuals within the department, then yes. Because all of us as biologists recognise these issues. I think there’s a general feeling that we need to be teaching more about, for example, the climate crisis. Not to the exclusion of everything else, of course, but there needs to be more right from year one. And often that teaching and training should be mandatory; it’s as important as anything else at the moment. Therefore, everybody should get some basic training in that even if you then decide to specialise in other regards later on, which is absolutely fine. We are in lots of discussions at the moment about how we might embed that better and where in the degree programmes that might fall.
But, making any changes is, sadly, slightly more complicated than us thinking ‘Wouldn’t this be a good idea?’. It’s not that we’re necessarily having pushback from the University. It’s just a procedural thing that requires boring, long paperwork changes and sign-off, rather than anybody saying there’s fundamentally something wrong about wanting to change. It just can’t happen overnight; you have to go through those processes. However, it’s certainly something that is in progress at the moment.
Going back to what you mentioned earlier about talking about when things have gone wrong in experiments – do you think that’s something that needs to be talked about more at University? It’s not always going to be perfect, things are going to be difficult and you’re going to fail sometimes..
I definitely think so, and I think that’s important at different levels. I think it’s important for individuals to recognise, but also then in terms of the bigger picture about the fact that science isn’t perfect! I sometimes joke that one day, if I ever had the chance, I’d like to write a book in which for each chapter, the first page is just some Methods section from a published paper and the rest of the chapter is the story of how that came about. When you read the Methods section of a paper, everything sounds completely smooth. But I know from my research, the reality is all the things that went wrong, all the iterative changes that you had to go through to get yourself to a finalised project. Showcasing this to earlier career people is really important; it’s never the case that we had these plans, we went out, we implemented it, thanks very much. The reality is that what you see written is the endpoint of all sorts of failures and hardships and changes and iterations. I think that’s really important for people to know. And if giving examples of where we have had epic failures is useful, then I am all for giving those examples (even if they result from my own stupidity)! There’s actually a lovely hashtag that does the rounds about epic fieldwork failures.
Yeah, I heard about someone in the department who glued themselves to a crocodile…
Yeah, I think she got stuck to a crocodile whilst trying to attach a tag! To me, that is part of the joys of science; part of the fieldwork journey is accepting it doesn’t go right all the time (in fact, most of the time). Half of your training really is about how to overcome that rather than thinking you can design something perfectly sitting at a desk, go out, get it right. That’s not how science operates. But that’s not the impression sometimes created by all these papers, that have these perfect Methods sections. Maybe we need to talk even more about that to make that clear.
When things are going wrong out in the field what is it that keeps you going and keeps you motivated?
A love of science and of the natural world. These days, I get to do precious little fieldwork myself, now I’ve got kids and loads of commitments here. So, I sometimes think, what am I missing? And actually, some of what I miss is simply being out in the natural world. Sure, you’re spending a lot of your time in those situations focused on whatever species you happen to be studying, but there’s all this wonder going on around you. You can’t help but see and be part of it if you’re out twelve hours a day for six months. It’s also lovely because often the next big questions to tackle are inspired by watching your study species; you’re in the ecosystem and seeing things you can’t read about. Lots of the best scientific ideas come because, day in day out, you are with a study organism and you’re seeing something and then all of a sudden you start thinking ‘hang on a minute; that’s a bit weird’. And then you realise it’s happening more than you thought, because now you’re seeing it happen. You think ‘what the hell is that about?’ And that’s the next research question.
When things are going wrong, don’t get me wrong, you can get enormously frustrated. You just have to find a way through it. When I was working in southern Africa and spent all day chasing birds through the forest, I used to go for a run on the beach or take my dog out or go horse riding or go drink too many Castle lagers in a bar in the evening. Just trying to have some balance and remember that everything working all the time is never going to happen and you need to pick yourself up to go again!
I think the other thing that’s really apparent now is not just about failures in fieldwork, but you have to overcome bigger stuff and have that resilience. It’s this idea about ecological grief, the idea that we are changing the planet at such an unprecedented rate; it’s devastating to see. If you see bleached coral reefs and you are used to seeing them as these vibrant cities of colour – one of our PhD students evocatively says you find yourself crying into your mask
underwater. And you can’t help but be affected by that. Something we’ve started talking about and writing about more is what do you do about that. Because, if that anxiety and that grief overwhelms you, it’s very difficult to find solutions and think how to move forward. How do we restore those ecosystems if we’re paralysed by that grief?
I think there’s two things here. One is that environmental scientists don’t have much in place to help them through this. I think we’ve got lots we can learn from the medical profession and from the military, for example. In those walks of life, there is lots of grief, but they have much more in place to help members of those professions to overcome that grief and then keep going and move forward. I also think it would help if more and more people were to talk about ecological grief, so that people experiencing this didn’t feel like they can’t say anything because they’ll just be told ‘get a grip, get over it’. You shouldn’t have to be dispassionate as a scientist all the time. If you care about the natural world and you’re seeing it be damaged day in, day out, then it’s perfectly acceptable to be anxious about that or to feel grief. Even just the act of talking about it can help. And then it’s about trying to solutions? Those solutions don’t have to be 20 years in the future at a government level; we can start building solutions at a local scale. Start to make a difference and start to feel positive. And if so, maybe that itself helps with the grief and you get this positive feedback loop.
So as the final question – we’ve been asking the same question to all of the BoB lecturers this year. If you could make one change to learning and teaching here at Bristol (not thinking too much about time and money) what would it be?
If there were genuinely no constraints, financial, time wise or anything, and if we ignore for a moment issues about carbon offsetting, I would take everybody out into the natural world more, and embed them in it for a bit. At the moment, the constraints in terms of university and school teaching mean you might do the occasional day trip or just possibly you do a week-long field course. But, I’d love to show people the joy of being out in the natural world and seeing what’s there, and also experience first-hand some of that devastation that we’re causing. Ideally, I’d also show them how we can make a difference. So, you can get that wonder, the devastation and the idea that we need to think about the solutions. Rather than just lecturing about the issues, telling stories and having them as slides, be able to put people into that experience themselves. That’s always going to be more powerful. Lots of our undergraduates or our postgraduates are lucky enough to have travelled, but lots haven’t. And so it would be a chance to open their eyes, not just through lecture slides, but by being somewhere, like diving on a coral reef or walking through a forest or out in the Kalahari Desert, whatever it is, that would be an amazing thing to be able to do.
Michael at the local allotment where he gains ideas about how to cultivate intimate relationships with nature that somewhat shape his approach to teaching.
Michael at the local allotment where he gains ideas about how to cultivate intimate relationships with nature that sometimes shape his approach to teaching.
As 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. It was during a walk in the Peak District with a friend, right after the 2017 General Election. We were talking about frustrated hopes and the experience of political defeat when he mentioned a book he had been reading, one that was helping him to make sense of what was going on. The book was called “Hope in the Dark”, by Rebecca Solnit, and although it’s a slender book, it’s full of expansive ideas and propositions. I recommend it to students all the time.
One of Solnit’s arguments is that our understanding of activism, and our model of case and effect, is often too simplistic. We like to operate under the assumption that action A will lead to action B, according to Solnit, and that there should be a discernible pattern between what we do and the effect of those actions. But her argument is that we can never fully comprehend the scale of our interventions in the world, since they will take on shapes and forms that we won’t necessarily be able to recognise. ‘It’s always too soon to go home’, she writes. ‘And it’s always too soon to calculate effect.’
Solnit illustrates this with an interesting story. In the 1960s, there was an anti-nuclear lobby group called Women Strike for Peace. The group was particularly alarmed by radioactive particles that began turning up in mother’s milk and had organised a series of protests outside the White House. There was a curious anecdote from one of the women involved in WSP. Apparently, this person said she sometimes felt a little foolish during the group’s protests – standing in the rain with her cardboard sign, chanting slogans she felt nobody was listening to. But Solnit points out that somebody was noticing. A few years after these protests, a paediatrician called Benjamin Spock, who made crucial contributions to the anti-nuclear movement, was asked: ‘what inspired you to speak out on this issue?’ When he responded, he started talking about a group of women he saw one day outside the White House…
I guess that what Solnit means when she says ‘it’s always too soon to calculate effect’. Sometimes an intervention can assume a shape in the world that you could never have imagined.
I was curious to know about where you grew up and whether natural landscapes shaped your relationship with nature? What does landscape mean to you personally?
I grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, and didn’t really have much access to the natural world. But when I was ten my family moved to Australia and we were lucky enough to live in a house by a canal. We had a small ‘tinny’, a three metre aluminium boat with a 6 horsepower outboard engine, and that was my ticket into a different world: an intricate network of canals, and, further out, a huge mangrove system and a shallow estuary we called the ‘Broadwater’. I remember taking the boat out one morning and seeing a school of dolphins swim past – no more than five meters away. That was pretty special, to be so near the Broadwater, and to be able to strike out on your own.
As for a conscious appreciation of nature, though, I don’t think I ever had that as a boy. If you’re lucky enough to be near some form wildness – and that can simply be a suburban park, of course – and if you’re allowed to roam there on your own, you just become immersed in a place. And before you have a critical apprehension of a place you have an intuitive relationship with it. It may become harder to recover that intuitive relationship as you get older, I don’t know. But I also think there’s also a sweet spot when the two harmonise, when you have a feral appreciation of a place as well as a self-reflexive engagement with it.
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. We paid £1.50 for a return train trip and had a great day out. Reflecting on it now, I think one reason the trip was so enjoyable was because it had nothing to do with our syllabus. We had no aim or agenda, and were just going to see what the light was doing and what the birds were doing.
As much as I can, I’ve been trying to bring more of these experiences into my teaching. It can be liberating for the students, I think, and for the teacher too. By inviting other ways of learning into the seminar, I’ve seen students become much more curious about the material we’re engaging with. Anxieties about self-presentation drop away, there’s a greater sense of ownership over the direction of our learning, and discussions become that much livelier as a result. Some of the best discussions I’ve experienced are the ones where I’ve abandoned my teaching plans. Or during that walk along Severn Beach, which was hardly a ‘seminar’ at all, but which went straight to the heart of the module, which was about the history of relationships between humans and the nonhuman world. We came away from that trip with an appreciation for small marvels: the driftwood that had washed up on the beach, the oystercatchers wheeling over the estuary, and the rich wonderful mud of Severn Beach. And yet we didn’t organise the trip with that purpose in mind. It’s just what happened when we turned up and started paying attention.
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?
I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to the topic of hope, but also increasingly critical about how it’s discussed. Engaging with hope can be incredibly empowering for students (how could it not be?), but there are different kinds of hope out there, and some forms of hope can be politically suspect and actively disempowering. So I think the first task is to distinguish between these different forms of hope, and to develop a critical vocabulary for thinking about this topic. At the moment, we seem to be in a situation where there’s an abundance of false hope but an undersupply of genuine hope, and I think it’s crucial to know the difference between the two, so that you don’t contribute to the oversupply of one and the paucity of the other.
For me, hope has less to do with a faith that the future will look better than the present and more to do with a critical understanding of what is possible when we begin to think and act in more communal and expansive ways. I see it very much as a political concept – a concept that can do political work – rather than as a theological concept, in which the possibility of hope is placed in a transcendent (rather than human) realm.
I realise this might sound a little strange. We don’t usually understand the work of hope to involve the daily (and sometimes quite mundane) realities of civic engagement. But the more I think about this topic, the more I see that politics and critical thinking are central to the practice of hope. This is for a number of reasons. One is that an unreflective kind of hope can be deeply counterproductive, because it can undermine the very thing you are trying to achieve. This is the kind of hope that takes the form, ‘things are going to get better, we just have to be patient’, which of course is a depoliticised form of hope, because it takes away your own obligations to act, in whatever form that might take – resisting, making, intervening, speaking, listening, co-creating. Critical hope takes on a completely different form, in that it’s a form of hope that increases rather than diminishes your obligations. It’s a kind of hope that makes particular demands on you to act in the world, even as you relinquish the desire to know what the consequences of your actions will look like.
What has been giving you hope lately? What are some of the boundaries to your sense of hope?
My students and I had a fascinating discussion in a seminar last week. We were talking about T.S Eliot’s‘The Waste Land’, a poem that was published nearly a hundred years ago now, and I was intrigued to see the students making powerful connections between the cultural crisis Eliot was describing and ecological crisis of our own time. According to one student, there was an eerie resonance between certain sectons in the poem and the 2019-20 wildfires in Australia, while another student read the poem in light of recent declarations of a climate emergency, in Britain and around the world. Another student said: “I feel like our generation has a different relationship to the future than our parent’s generation. Whereas our parents saw the future as open-ended, to us the future seems increasingly closed.’ So, very early on in our seminar, the poem led to some difficult but important conversations around emergency, disillusion and powerlessness. There was a shared sense that the only predictable thing in the current climate was unpredictability.
But after discussing these issues, we looked at the poem again. We wanted to see if, amid the various ‘wastelands’ described by the poem, there were also examples or models for how one might respond to crisis. Of course, we didn’t find anything. ‘The Waste Land’ is one of the most powerful poems I know, but it’s also one of the most bewildering, and I still don’t really understand what it’s about. In any case, we started talking about the final section of the poem, which is when – after a long period of drought (ecologically and spiritually) – the skies fill with the sound of thunder. It’s an ominous moment, of course – a sign of troubled weather – and the poem also tells us that this is ‘dry sterile thunder’, without the promise of rain. A few stanzas later, however, we do get a trickle of rain. A ‘flash of lighting’ appears over an abandoned chapel, which is soon followed by a ‘damp gust / bringing rain.’
We didn’t quite know what to make of this as a class. The image of a storm gathering over an abandoned chapel isn’t exactly consoling or comforting. And yet, after the dryness of the earlier stanzas, the appearance of rain offered a sense of physical relief. There is so much disturbance in the poem – images of communities and processes out of joint. But here was a glimmer of something that may have been good. It was only a glimmer, and it had to be seen within the context of background ruin and devastation. Nonetheless, it was an image we felt we could work with – and perhaps even work towards – despite the fact (or precisely because) it was so ambiguous.
I guess there’s another parallel here with the work of Rebeca Solnit. In Hope in the Dark, she writes that contained in the word ‘emergency’ is the word ‘emerge’, and I think that what critical hope does is extend your capacity to see glimmers of possibility during moments of crisis, while remaining alert to its darker dimensions (as Naomi Klein outlines in The Shock Doctrine, crises can offer special opportunities for ‘disaster capitalists’ to extend and solidify their power).
Of course, there’s always a danger that ‘critical hope’ can relax into cliché. And there’s always the possibility that, by focusing so determinedly on hope, you only come to see examples of ‘emergence’, and pay less attention to the facts of the ‘emergency’. But taken with the right amount of tension, I think the notion of ‘critical hope’ can be a very powerful and motivating for students, a way of responding skilfully and courageously to moments of crisis.
Many of us do struggle to see the “emergence” in the midst of all this volatility.
It’s easy to see why. ‘History is what hurts’, as Frederic Jameson says, and if history is any guide to the future, it’s clear there will be much more volatility to come (without even mentioning, of course, the scale of the current climate breakdown, which is completely new to human history). And, as any activist will tell you, it’s incredibly easy to lose hope and feel burned out in the midst of a long political struggle. You begin to realise just how entrenched the current economic systems are, and how unresponsive political and cultural institutions have become. Then there’s the difficulty of living with the contradiction between the insights you might have about what is socially possible and the lived reality of life under capitalism. Living with that contradiction can quickly lead to hopelessness, or, just as often, lead you to relinquish idealism in favour of ‘realism’. But again – and as long as it doesn’t relax into sentimentalism – a notion of critical hope might come in useful here. Even as it commits you to acting in the world, and even as it forces you to be critical of uncritical hope, it also transforms your understanding what change might look like, which itself offers grounds for hope.
I enjoyed hearing that you are learning from students as much as the students are learning from you. What new teaching methods do you hope to bring to students in the future?
A couple years ago, I enrolled on a herbalism course in Stroud, and was inspired by the teaching methods of the instructor Nathan Hughes. His approach to the subject was both rigorous and joyful, and I’ve found myself wanting to transfer some of the things I’ve learned from him to my own practice as a teacher. For example, when it comes to learning about a new plant, we are asked to ‘meet’ the plant in its natural environment. This can involve a variety of forms: sitting next to the plant, observing it closely, drawing it with pencil, watching how it responds to the light and wind, seeing what insects are drawn to the plant, studying the environment in which it likes to grow, noting the other plants that you might find in its vicinity, and so on. So, long before you know the plant’s common or Latin name, and long before you’ve begun learning about its medicinal uses, you’ve already developed an embodied relationship with the plant. You’ve paid attention to it; and you’ve looked at it for yourself.
Although there’s only so much you can do within the confines of a seminar room, I’ve tried to introduce strands of this approach into my own teaching. I’ve been teaching a module this year called ‘What is Nature?’, and during one of our seminars we went to Royal Fort Gardens, with no other purpose in mind than to look at the trees. We looked at an ash tree, a mulberry tree, as well as an impressive hornbeam tree, and spent a bit of time listening to the different sounds they made in the wind, looking at how they changed in the light, as the clouds came and went, and drawing them as carefully as we could. Towards the end of the session, we also came up with some words for the trees, based on the principle of Anglo-Saxon kennings, in which an object is described with a compound phrase rather than a noun. Some of the kennings were amazingly inventive, such as ‘cloud anchor’, ‘weathered companion’, ‘light catcher’, and ‘arthritic witches’ hands’, a phrase which nicely captured the twisting branches of the mulberry.
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, that’s right. We know that we flourish as learners when the whole mind and body are involved in the effort of understanding and making sense of a thing. But sometimes we find ourselves teaching in ways that obstruct those kinds of approaches and engagements. We end up promoting a particular kind of approach to knowledge (one that is disembodied and instrumental) at the expense of other forms of apprehension, in which being able to stay with ambiguity and complexity are just as important as finding a clear ‘answer’.
There’s a wonderful passage in Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain that I often think about. It’s a moment when she advises her reader to ‘Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down’. As you look, the landscape alters before your eyes, so that, from the the ‘close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land’, each detail will stand ‘erect in its own validity’. And as you look in this way, something else might happen too. Rather than being ‘the focal point’ of the scene, the focal point will be distributed across the landscape, because you will have dislocated your usual ways of looking.
I love that. It’s like advice given by a child in the middle of a game, but here it is offered by a writer who, when she wrote those words, was in her early 50s and was living through the final years of the Second World War. For Shepherd, knowledge is a kind of garden – a place you can walk into, get lost in, and explore with your mind and body. And though she encourages you to be precise in your looking, she also demonstrates that you can still be child-like in your wonder, and that’s the wonderful thing about her – that synthesis of empiricism and Pre-Socratic awe. She also demonstrates something else that continues to inspire me – the fact that you can bring together sensibilities that are sometimes divided from each other, and in such a way that those sensibilities sharpen rather than diminish each other. Her writing is devoted without being pious, practical without being utilitarian, whole-bodied without being anti-intellectual, and intellectual without being abstract. For best results, look at the world through your legs, but be sure to do this upside down…
So yes, to get back to your question, there are lots of improvements and changes we can make to how we teach. For one, I’d like to see a more concerted attempt to connect phenomenological approaches with intellectual ones, but perhaps that requires a large-scale transformation to our picture of what knowledge is or can be. One of the implicit educational models we seem to be working with is that we’re ‘brains in a vat’, trying to soak up the best of what’s been thought and said, while also learning to be critical in our relationship to that knowledge. But what if, instead of beginning and ending with that picture, we started from a different premise – that of human embodiment? What would things look like if we proceeded from there? Of course, there’s much that’s good in our current model, but it’s also limited for some of the reasons we’ve been discussing. Perhaps a synthesis along the lines modelled by Nan Shepherd is what we need.
Who influenced you most whilst at University?
My most influential teacher was a lecturer at the University of Queensland. I was studying economics at the time, but decided to take an optional module in the English department. It was an incredible course – we readbooks by Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Emil Cioran and others – and afterwards I found that I just couldn’t go back to economics. The lecturer’s name was Peter Holbrook and although his course was intellectually rigorous, it was also good fun – serious fun. He had a way of getting you actively involved in the various questions posed by a book – philosophical, political, aesthetic, historical, cultural – while also making sure you didn’t forget about the simple joy of reading, the delight of literature. I still feel very grateful to Peter for making those books come alive for us, and for steering me away from a degree in economics, which would probably have been disastrous for me.
Keir and I met in a design studio in the Centre for Innovation. Throughout the interview, staff and students alike would come in to fetch or print things and everyone knew each other, giving the centre a real sense of community. This was particularly fitting as we went on to discuss how he teaches community and participatory methods, as well as the effect of dyslexia on his work and his unusual and colourful journey into lecturing.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you lecture on and what your teaching style is?
Here at the Centre, I teach a few different units with slightly esoteric names, ‘Being Human’, ‘Past, Present and Futures’ and Live Client Briefs. My official title is Lecturer in Design Thinking, but it’s closer to being a lecturer in Design Research. My teaching focuses on participatory methods of research and design. So how you get other people to become researchers and participate in the process that you’re creating or get them to determine the process themselves. In my wider work, I create spaces for people to participate in. That could be research, that can be sound system parties, it can be dance classes, it could be music events, it could be art projects, it just depends on the context, really. What I teach at the Centre is how we work with other people and how we work in groups to develop ventures in different ways. As part of this, I teach innovation. It’s hard to define innovation as it’s contextual and there are so many models out there. We teach our students how to develop an innovative approach to the world and what we mean by innovation. To be innovative you need to be able to map social contexts, situations, phenomena, in a way that allows us to model it, that allows us to disrupt it or to support it.
I teach project-based work. Our first-year citizen science project gets to go and work with groups of local people in nature reserves around Bristol to develop a participant lead science experiment. For their other project students have to create a venture that creates value for someone or create an intervention that brought people into social interaction in the public space. This enables them to engage with the city as a context for research and consider how we make value for people. Underlying my engaged teaching is quite a lot of social and design theory, that comes from a lot of different places relating to my background.
So, how does your background affect the way you teach?
I’m a bit of a weird fish. I’m dyslexic and didn’t do well in assessments at school. I got eight GCSEs, no A-Levels. I did an art foundation which meant I could get into university using a portfolio of my work. I did a fine art undergraduate degree, and then was a technician and building services staff at the fine art department I studied in. I also started my own business doing videos, and a reggae sound system that’s got the longest running Reggae night in Europe. We toured and do a lot of festivals and still do. I did a Masters in Fine Art which was paid for by the AHRC with living costs. When I finished I taught on the Masters for a couple of years part-time. At the time I lived in a warehouse in a rough bit of Birmingham, where we had a gallery, and did big art parties with giant papier-Mache animals props and costumes that turned into a night called DJ sexmachine and super best friends which we toured, which was like a really campy draggy drunken night that we used to do weird performances with.
I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I did my art foundation, which changed everything for me. I didn’t get support but it changed how I saw myself and how I work. Before my PhD, I was doing a lot of work as an artist for galleries, a lot of playwork, performance art and a lot of playwork with kids with special needs. Through the sound system and my playwork, I started to work with a group called Tourette Hero who develops creative projects that challenges societal norms of disability. Jess Thomm who runs Tourettes Hero has Tourette’s and she uses her experience of Tourettes to create work. We worked together on a bunch of projects including stuff at Tate Modern and Tate Britain and lots of community and play settings around London.
At the same time as doing any academic stuff, I am also still a practising artist. This year I had a show at We The Curious with our arts collective. As a collective, we’ve been going up to the Arctic north of Norway to do an art project in an old fishing village that has the first industrial fishing processing plant in the world. Our collective is made up of a team of six artists, we’ve been doing it for 4 years. The reason I mention this is that projects like this inform and structure my teaching. In this case, we developed a project based on this for my first year and post-graduate students. It allowed us to draw on staff from the museum and use We the Curious as a venue for our annual student conference. I’m not strictly one discipline. I’m not strictly a computer scientist, I’m not strictly an artist or a designer. But all of those things feed into my practices for innovation. My work is about being self-motivated, overly enthusiastic, curious, and finding ways to help other people to learn and play.
Side note: I highly encourage readers to visit Kier’s website if you want to see more of his work, which you can find here. It’s a bit of an experience.
My question is, how do you bring those skills into teaching; you’ve obviously done a really wide variety of things outside of academia.
For me, there are three components to my work: research, practice and teaching. They are dependant on each other. I can’t teach if I’m not doing current research. I can’t do research and make art if I’m not teaching. With the two major shows I’ve done in Bristol over the last two years they became projects for my first years and master’s students. Another example is the oral history project I did for the M Shed museum, to showcase people involved in the Bristol music scene over 70 years. I worked with a second year to create portraits for the vinyl copies of the interviews I recorded. This project allowed us to draw on the museum staff to teach and provide feedback throughout the student’s projects. The first project asks our students to use the recordings I created and present issues that arose from them for an audience outside of the museums typical demographic.
In terms of my actual teaching, I see it as a performance. That is I use the skills I learnt through contemporary dance, capoeira and performance art to engage and include all of my students in the projects I’m passionate about. I never had lectures or seminars or university and never taught in that way till I started lecturing outside of art and design. What I find interesting here at the university is that the ‘flat teaching’ we do is a new, innovative form of teaching. For me and this is how I‘ve always done it. I see my teaching approach as the same for young kids with special educational needs and masters students. I have an empathic approach that creates a space to learn that is created based on the lived experiences of my students. I am also academically rigorous. I can be quite pingy and I feel sometimes I come across as quite over-enthusiastic, and a bit ditzy. But actually, the skill is to be ‘ditzy’ and enthusiastic to gather all the information and get involved in the world and then refine that into something useful within the structures of academia or creative practice. Whether that’s a narrative, an exhibition or an academic paper.
As someone who’s neurodiverse and disabled, I struggled at school, even though I’m from a fairly privileged background, white middle-class academic parents, I really struggled. I had people who supported me and helped me get through when I didn’t think any of these systems would work for me and I feel like that’s now my responsibility to do that for other people. Uplifting other people, right? The first thing I do in my first lecture is say that I’m dyslexic and I’m really overenthusiastic and at times very silly and that’s what makes me, me. I do this at the beginning of every term and I bang on about it a lot. If I spell a word wrong when I’m writing on a board, then I tell them to just imagine a little red line underneath it because I don’t care. What it does, is it draws out people with disabilities to come talk to me if they want to, to make that kind of thing possible.
I think a lot of people when it comes to something like Bristol university is scary, right? If you’re coming from a non-public school background or, you know, you don’t necessarily have a privilege that some students do. It’s why I wear casual clothes I wear because it gives that sense of not being “You have to be proper now because you’re in university” right? And not getting rid of that curiosity and joy and experience that drives students to come to uni. I’ve had students with working-class backgrounds say, “I feel so unconfident, everyone else knows what they’re doing, they know how to be and how to dress”. I think it’s really important to create a space where they don’t, they can feel that their experiences are as valid as anyone else’s.
One of the things I’m looking at is elements of Bristol University engaging with the wider community, which on your website, you do quite a lot of. Is that something that you feel like affects your students in a positive or negative way?
Yeah, so most of the stuff we do is based around engagement in communities, and also problematizing the idea of communities right, so ‘what is a community?’, ‘who makes a community?’. I think I lead by example and this comes back to the importance of having a practice while teaching. The work within Norway was working with a refugee centre that’s up there, here we worked with communities in Avon mouth, for the music project we worked with old punks, trip-hop stars and local residence. There are issues that have to be addressed so that any ‘community based’ work is conducted without harming the students or participants. I’ve just done a project for our PGT students with Universities theatre collection. The issue was none of our students had ever done work relating to participatory arts, theatre or live art. They’ve never done events and they’ve never done collections because our masters are drawn from a huge range of different countries and disciplines. The problem of doing participatory, engaged work is if I’d sent out students straight away to talk to communities and experts based on the collection, they could have made some really serious mistakes. There’s that adage of ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’. I kind of think it needs to be the opposite because you can’t do that in situations with community groups where you can hurt people through unintended consequences of the way we work as researchers.
Fundamentally if you want to work with a group of people you want to find out about them, you want to see how they do things and you potentially want to help them to make change. You can’t just chuck a lot of students out there. So, what we have to do is create some sort of a structure for them to do it. What we end up doing, is creating structures that allow them to do some participation and work with some communities and also think about their own communities. For me it’s a craft as much as it is a discipline in that you have to do it, you will never be perfect and you have to adapt it every time you do it. There are certain core skills you need in terms of personality and talking to people but there’s also a set amount of theory you need to understand in terms of power relationships, but also realising your limitations, you’re never going to be able to do it perfectly. To get students to do that’s incredibly tough, I think but it’s incredibly valuable and it’s what we try to do over the four-year course.
Other than the specific community-based skills that they gain, do you see the work they do affecting other parts of their learning?
Oh yeah. I think there should be more recognition that the university is part of the community, that it’s within the same social structures. This is the danger with some of this stuff sometimes, that you end up with this kind of deficiency model of going to work with community groups. I think what I’m trying to say is that I think a lot of our students have that idea that you’re going to go to somebody to fix them. Whether that’s Barton Hill or northern Nigeria, it feels like you know, we’re going to help these people as opposed to this notion of there’s an exchange going on. The deficiency model says you have a problem only we can fix. What we promote is going to work with people you say ‘we are here, we have certain skills and experience that you don’t, you have skills and experiences we don’t, let’s create something together’.
In their professional lives, students are not going to just do what they’ve learnt in their discipline. As a physicist, you are part of a community of other physicists and scientists, you have funders, and social and cultural issues to deal with. You have to talk to you have to communicate your ideas, you have to work in a lab or office, you have to, you know to negotiate with the world. There’s all this stuff that still exists if you’re a physicist or an actor. The work you need to do with others is not separate from the discipline.
The benefit for our students in working with ‘communities’ outside of the university is that it gives them the skills to practically go and talk to people and do things that aren’t just in their comfort zone within the university. And it offers them a huge body of evidence, skills, data, tools, methods, experiences, to build their own practice from. Its more than our students feeling good about and doing socially engaged work with people. The work they do with people outside of the university becomes an exchange, and it should be an exchange.
I have one more question that we’re asking all of the BoB lecturers this year: What do you feel the most positive change to learning and teaching that we can make at University?
Make it free. Make the whole thing free and don’t base it solely on UCAS entry.
Dr Rose Murray is an Associate Director of Learning and Teaching and a Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences. We sat down in Rose’s office in the Life Sciences Building, the home of all the school’s teaching focussed academics, to chat about her journey through Bristol and her love for her job and the city.
What’s your journey been like in higher education and in Bristol
did biology as an undergraduate student, I actually did it in Bristol, so I’ve
never left Bristol. It’s a tribute to how much I like the place!
my third year I decided I wanted to do a PhD. So I applied for lots of
different PhDs, and got some rejections at first. I got about three rejections
before I got any acceptances – it’s important to remember it’s not always the
first one that you’ve set your heart on. But in the end a really good
opportunity came up in the building, working on plant viruses.
as I was coming towards the end of my PhD, there were seven members of staff
going on sabbatical at once. That was proving really difficult because, oh my
god, you’ve got seven members of staff not teaching, how on earth are we going
to deliver all that teaching? So they created three job posts for teaching
associates. I applied for one of those and got it. That was initially only a 10
month contract and then it extended here and there, and gradually, the job
became a real position within the department. Rather than seeing it as a kind
of temporary stopgap, it was actually ‘Oh, this can work really well. Why don’t
we build this into the structure of our school?’.
few years later, my current position came up – they wanted someone a bit more
senior to lead the pathway three team which is the teaching focussed lecturers.
So I applied for that and got it. Initially that they’d offered the job to
someone else much more senior who had 10 years experience at the time. I was in
my late 20s so really didn’t feel like I had any experience. Pretty terrifying.
And then the other person didn’t accept. So it was like ‘oh gosh, I’ve got the
job. That’s really scary’. But I grew up and my confidence grew. I knew I was
always going to enjoy it, but I was able to take ownership of the job.
we’ve got a team of 10 of us who sit in our office (9 Biological Sciences, 1
Earth Sciences). Our mission is to teach, but also to help promote teaching
excellence within the school. A number of us sit on the Teaching Committee,
where our job is to drive innovation, which I think we’ve done through a number
of different initiatives over the last few years. We try to have that headspace
where we are thinking about how we can improve what we do, give the students a
better student experience and learning experience, and be more inclusive. All
of these different things that, to be perfectly honest, a pathway one member of
staff who does teaching and research really just doesn’t have the time to even
think about. I don’t know how they do their job! Managing a research group;
thinking about the next grant; teaching; doing all the school admin jobs, it’s
really, really tough.
Do you think it’s really important that the department and the
University put more in place to support pathway three?
absolutely. Without a doubt, and I think it’s going to be done right.
conduct our own pedagogic research and go to all the teaching and learning
conferences so we engage in that network, and speaking to peers who are in the
same position as us, we’ve seen it can be done wrong. You can be hired in and
seen as a sort of, not a real academic. That can be how a lot of traditional
academics see us, which can be quite hard. And I think I’m guilty of feeling a
bit defensive about that. Even though our department is very supportive. Also
in other institutes, pathway three staff are in a different building.
So there’s a physical divide?
yeah. A really nice thing about us moving into this office is that it’s in the
middle of the building, so it’s in the heart. We do have that integration. And
we’re trying to become more integrated into the workings of the school and also
share good practice.
think it’s essential if we’re ever going to keep up with our competitors. We
are a Russell Group University, we’re really strong with our research, and
we’ve got a really good reputation. But many of our competitors who are might
not be near us in the traditional standings because they aren’t a research
strong University can be a lot more focused and engaged in their pedagogy. The
majority of their staff will be like us, in that their main job is teaching and
thinking about teaching.
are a top research university and our teaching is research-led – there are
plenty of arguments for saying that, even if our teaching wasn’t very good,
that being taught by top researchers is a good thing because it filters through
to the teaching, and when you do your practical projects, you do it a
researcher’s lab, for example. But I think the best approach is to have this
mixture where research feeds into teaching and we’re working together so that
we’re all-round excellent, not just in teaching.
What would you say research-led teaching means to you?
actually did a workshop on this, there’s like four different meanings! What
some people see it as is teaching by researchers, which is one way of looking
at it. I think a more important way of looking at it is research-informed
teaching. So you are teaching the research that is happening. You are teaching
students to be researchers. Research-informed teaching is not only informed by
the subject, but also by pedagogic research. Those come together. At our third
year, for example, our units are very much research-led or research-inspired,
because we don’t teach on subjects that we’re not experts in. Whereas first
year you might be teaching stuff you’re not an expert in because your expertise
is too niche. Although, I don’t think anyone’s ever really an expert until
they’ve had a lifetime of experience in a given field!
It’s great when you see a lecturer clearly passionate about what
they’re teaching about, and I guess that’s because they’re researching it.
In your interview for the Bristol Teaching Awards a few years ago,
you made a really great point about how you can use your passion for a subject
to in to persuade people that parts of biology they might not think are
interesting, are in fact, really interesting. Do you find it challenging
teaching subjects that students might already have preconceptions about?
can be. We have a general first year where you learn everything from microbes
to humans, the whole diversity of life. It can be a bit frustrating for zoology
students that don’t want to learn about plants. It’s a challenge, but it’s
definitely more fun because you can get your passion across. Why was I drawn to
working in plants? Things like food security and the global, grand challenges
we’re facing. That’s what I try to communicate.
always going to get people that are, even after all of that, still not
interested and that’s fine. That’s just part of life. You know, some subjects
are interesting to some people. But what is quite nice is that you see in the
feedback that some people really enjoyed it. Which makes it worthwhile.
can be challenging, but that’s more of a motivator for me than a deterrent, I
think. It’s much more gratifying to convert people than to just be preaching to
In the Molecular Genetics module you taught on last year, I really
enjoyed that you made your lectures exciting and tried to mix it up with breaks
and quizzes. Is that something you enjoy doing too?
try! Molecular genetics was quite a hard one actually because it’s quite
content heavy. It’s much easier for the first year but even in third year I try
to do it, because it’s good practice that I’ve learned about. I’m sure you’ve
heard that the attention span of your typical student is about 20 minutes, so
it’s hard work sitting through an hour’s worth of content. You can’t expect
someone to take it all in.
no-one wants to be teaching to a room full of people who are quite clearly
drifting off, who won’t be able to be engaged and interested. So trying to
break it up with quizzes or silly things can sometimes just help to give the
brain a rest. Trying to do things interactively is also really fun. It can give
a different feel to the lecture and it wakes you up as a participant because
you’re doing something, you’re not just listening passively.
breaks came up in student staff liaison committee as a positive thing from the
students, so it’s something that we’ve tried to encourage the whole school to
do. But some lecturers will feel more confident to do it than others. It’s
always harder to try new things as you get more experienced. Especially when
it’s out of your comfort zone. It’s part of our mission to try to assist with
that, not shoehorn people into a position that they’re not going to feel
also moving towards more flipped learning as well – having videos or reading to
do beforehand, and then in the session, it’s a lot more interactive. They are
generally much better for learning – you obtain that higher order learning
through problem solving. I think lectures have a place and they are great ways
to deliver a lot of content. But we’ve got a diverse student population, which
is great, and that usually encompasses a lot of different learning styles. To
be more inclusive, not only for different learning styles, but different
backgrounds and different groups of people, you’ve got to diversify your
teaching style. And it’s much more fun. It’s fun to try something new and do
something a bit different and to interact with students. You can do more to
help. If all we need from lecturers is to stand at the front and talk, why
don’t we just record everybody and we can play that every year? What’s our
role? We need to carve out a purpose and make it a meaningful and worthwhile
experience to come to university.
I suppose you’re probably used to it now, but the thought of it
would terrify most students, do you find it quite nerve wracking standing up to
give a lecture to 250 people?
my supervisor said a lecturing opportunity was coming up, in my head I was like
‘No way, I don’t want to stand and lecture people, that’s terrifying’. But
there was a side of me that realised this was a valuable opportunity and would
be a really good thing to do. And that first lecture was mortifying. I spoke a
million miles an hour and I finished it in 35 minutes. It got to half past and
I thought ‘oh no, I’m nearly at the end’.
not so much of a problem now but it was terrifying, absolutely terrifying! But
it’s a great skill to feel comfortable with, public speaking is so useful. And
I do still get nervous, but so much less than I ever was as a student, back
then it was the most terrifying thing to do!
We had to do presentations for our practical project this week and
I was so nervous. Did you have project students this year?
did, myself and Bex Pike had students working on pedagogy-based projects. For
example, some of our students were looking at how education about climate
change can change the outlook of school students. Things like giving a
practical solution to climate change. That was a really fun lesson! We went and
planted loads of trees and they evaluated whether the students had a more
positive outlook on climate issues. They wanted to see if they could inspire
hope, although it was hard to pin that down exactly. But we saw a much more
positive outlook, which was obviously a really good thing, especially when
eco-anxiety is so prevalent. It’s been really fun to branch out and try
something different. It’s great for the students if they do want to go into
teaching which is a massive destination for many of our graduates. It seems
right to offer something like that.
Students seem to love the Practical Projects and the Field Courses
we do in Biological Sciences, there’s always really positive feedback,
particularly for the field courses. How is that as a teaching experience for
a great thing that we offer. Thankfully, it’s recognised at our school level
that it’s a really valuable part of our degree. We hope that we never, never
get rid of it. Even though it’s a huge investment in terms of staff time, and
money. I think at any one time, there could be as many as like 17 different
courses choose from. Obviously, compared to just delivering all of that
teaching to one group, it costs a lot more. But all of the staff that do it
love it. You actually get to know your students and you’re much more involved,
doing far more practical activity. Students get to know us as people not just lecturers
at the front of the lecture theatre.
know from personal experience having gone through it myself that it [attending
field courses] was the turning point in our year when everyone started to get
to know each other and suddenly this network comes together.
why as part of overhauling first year, we’re bringing in a field trip in week
three for the entire cohort. We want there to be a stronger community for our
students. It’s better for everybody that it exists. It’s better for students
because you have more people to talk to. The more comfortable you feel with the
other people the more likely it is that you’re going to share a wellbeing issue
and support each other. There’s a lot of studies that say that the greater the
community, the better learning experience.
It’s really fantastic that you’re integrating community into the
So as a final question – you’ve been in Bristol all the way
through your university career, what is it about the city or the university
that you love?
a small town girl, I’m from the West Country. That’s not to say I didn’t look
at going to lots of different places. But then when I came to Bristol I just
settled in really well. There’s these big anxieties before you come to Uni, and
I’d already gone through these, so I thought why would I want to have to do all
that over again?
love it here, I love the architecture and the way the city looks. I love that
there’s so much to do here but it’s a small enough that you can pretty much
walk everywhere. I like that it’s a green capital which feels really in tune
with a lot of work that we do. And the people are great.
Why not Bristol? I’ve got my dream job. I feel incredibly lucky every day to come to work. Honestly, I look forward to it. Well, maybe not every day! But whenever anyone asks what I do I feel so proud to say what I do as part of this institute. I can legitimately say I absolutely love what I do. I would never want to do anything else. I can’t think of a job that I would enjoy more, even though that’s a bit corny!
After winding our way through the Hogwarts-like corridor of the Arch & Anth building, we met Jamie Lawson in his office. An Anthropology lecturer, Jamie was nominated by his students to give a Best of Bristol lecture last year. We caught up with him to see what he’s been working on since, as well as talk about his experience with Best of Bristol and his thoughts on giving students opportunities to explore topics outside of their disciplines.
Tell us a bit about what you’re researching at the moment…
Most recently I’ve been researching the Puppy Play community, which is a socio-sexual, queer community of practice – or subculture – involving people who take on the persona and mannerisms of dogs for a period of time. We gathered data over a period of two or so years and we’re currently outputting papers from that. We have had a couple published, and there’s a couple more in the works once I get round to writing them! That’s where I’ve been focusing mostly and we’ll see what happens next.
That’s pretty unique! You must be one of the only researchers looking into that, is that exciting?
Yeah sure! There’s me and my co-author, and there’s only two other papers that are published on the topic by academics working elsewhere. Other than that, nothing has been written about Puppy Play so yeah it’s very exciting to be on the leading edge of something…not quite sure what!
It’s good to be working in something that’s quite niche and I guess that’s reflective of queer subcultures in general. That community has gone through a process from being quite a niche group to be something that suddenly had a lot of public attention, so there’s some parallels there with the way research has played out.
Your Best of Bristol Lecture last year also looked at the LGBTQ+ community. Could you tell us some more about that?
My BoB lecture was called: “Over the Rainbow: A Brief Social History of Queer Resistance”. I took the opportunity to talk about the historical origins of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.
I began by talking about the black and brown stripes that have recently been added to the rainbow flag to represent the people of colour who have been left out of a movement that was, to a noticeable extent, started by them. Queer and trans people of colour were integral to the early LGBTQ+ rights movement. The addition of the stripes caused a really strange amount of resistance from within LGBTQ+ groups, particularly from white gay men, although not exclusively, some of whom objected quite strongly to the inclusion of some new stripes.
People were saying things like ‘race/ethnicity/skin colour were never part of the original rainbow flag so why should they be now?’. But that’s precisely the issue. LGBTQ+ people should know very well if you don’t include people then they get automatically excluded – you have to actively push against processes of oppression and exclusion.
My lecture then stepped back to look at the origins of modern homophobia and heterosexism in colonialism and Victorian attitudes in particular to sex and sexuality. This touched on the idea that as European Powers, and Britain in particular, conquered and colonised other parts of the world, they exported certain ideas with them.
This includes white supremacy and the idea of European civilisation being superior, alongside really rigid gender norms that underpin how a lot of European societies function. I was trying to draw a connection between anti-queer and anti-trans rhetoric and racism, all wrapped up in this idea of a colonial world view.
So I guess that’s quite a lot. I covered quite a lot of things. It was fun though, I enjoyed it and people seemed to get into it. It was a nice opportunity to be able to talk about that sort of stuff in a public facing lecture.
Was it something that you had lectured about before?
In bits and pieces. I had a few of my students come along and one of them said that they had seen me talk about components of it in various different lectures over the years but it was really interesting for them to see it all together in a single story.
How different was the experience of lecturing for a much broader audience, as opposed to lecturing students with a view to future exams or assessments?
I’d done a certain amount of public engagement before – I enjoy it very much. This particular lecture was a challenge because it was a mixed audience: students, members of the public, friends and academics. So, it’s a challenge trying to pitch the lecture appropriately for people who have different levels of knowledge or engagement. But it’s always fun, I quite enjoy lecturing without the assessment hanging over the top of everything.
Do you enjoy teaching through lectures? And, as part of that, do you think that lectures are a good way to educate people?
I enjoy a lecture. I think it’s a very powerful way of putting across information. I enjoy giving lectures – it’s not the only way of delivering information for sure. In my time I’ve taken part in many different forms of public engagement including showing some short films based on research, panel discussions, less formal sort of things.
It was really nice and personally very gratifying to have my skill as a lecturer recognised.
Having being recognised for how good your lectures were, has it affected how you’ve given them since?
It was a nice feeling of… validation, is that the word? It made me feel more confident that I’m doing things well, particularly the fact that it was a student-led award. That made it all the more meaningful because students are my primary audience. I think lectures should be engaging and entertaining and informative. And I guess my audience thinks I met at least some of those aims. So it was a nice confidence boost certainly…and I got this nice paperweight!
When we’re shortlisting lecturers and topics for BoB this year, do you think it’s important that we try to ensure the lectures cover topics that people might not be exposed to otherwise, like yours last year?
I guess it’s up to you really, what you want to see portrayed. For me personally, I’m a queer researcher, I work on queer subcultures and I’m a gay man and that’s something that I bring into most work that I do. It comes up in lectures not infrequently. It was nice to assert that identity publicly with the university and the student support behind me, that felt very powerful. I think showcasing diversity and giving minority voices some volume would be a worthwhile aim for the Best of Bristol awards.
There’s a lot of sentiment within Bristol that the curriculum needs to be decolonised, and I don’t think, outside of the Best of Bristol, a lot of students get the opportunity to hear the sort of things you covered in your lecture.
Yeah. One of Anthropology’s big things is critiquing colonialism, so yes I agree, it’s notoriously absent in the university setting, you don’t hear a lot of people at higher levels talking about colonialism, although Bristol has made a lot of positive moves recently, with the work of the Centre for Black Humanities, and the appointment of the first Professor of the History of Slavery. And notoriously or mind-blowingly, and I say this as somebody who was at one point at school in this country, we don’t educate our children about Britain’s role in Colonialism really. You learn about the empire and you learn about the dissolution of the empire and you learn that this thing exists. But you never quite appreciate the systematic violence that Britain was complicit in. You never really learn about Britain’s role in the slave trade; that’s always taught as something that was an American thing.
When I teach that sort of stuff to students here it often comes as a bit of a shock. And I think what I tried to do in my lecture was to demonstrate the impact of colonialism: that the racism which comes directly out of colonialism connects to the heteronormativity, homophobia, transphobia and cis-normativity that comes out of colonialism as well.
The struggles of minority groups are distinct; everybody faces their own distinct lines of oppression, but nevertheless they are connected. Best of Bristol was a nice opportunity to be able to put all of that together for an audience that was outside my degree program so might not have heard that sort of stuff before.
You mentioned that you’re able to bring your identity into the research and lectures that you do. Do you think then that your research is valuable not just to the wider research community, but to you as an individual?
It’s an important question. Another option I could have chosen for my Best of Bristol lecture was to present a talk I’d given before which is a story charting my personal history – how I moved from being a very biologically, evolutionarily focused academic working on sex and sexuality, to much more sociological, phenomenological research. A move from quant to qual, from numbers to interviews, from a really strongly heteronormative discipline to being a queer researcher. That talk is called “How I became a queer Anthropologist”.
I think this is sort of the opposite of what you said to me. Because as researchers we’re often encouraged to leave ourselves out of the work we do. And one of the big things that happened to me was a realisation that my personal identity was inextricably connected to the work I do – I think that’s true of all researchers. People aren’t encouraged to reflect on that.
It’s not so much about what my research does for me, it’s about what I bring to my research.
Would you like more opportunities for students to be able to go and see lectures in other departments?
Yeah, absolutely. Unequivocally yes. I think it would be really lovely to be able to offer some sort of general education for students. Some universities do general 1st years, where you specialise in 2nd or 3rd year on their actual degree course. That’s a nice idea, but at the same time it’s really useful to have students specialise in their discipline. Swings and roundabouts on that.
It would be really cool, for example, if people doing science degrees did learn a bit about colonialism because it’s really important in the way science develops. It’s something we discuss in anthropology – the really complex but very important connections between colonialism and evolutionary theory itself, how those things are intertwined and reinforce one another to some extent.
And vice-versa it would be handy if students could head out from anthropology and encounter all sorts of things. I think being able to approach knowledge for the sake of knowledge would be wonderful. But that is a privilege, having time, resources, money to spare to be able to do that, I’m aware.
The Best of Bristol is a really nice opportunity for students to be able to encounter things outside of their discipline in an engaging lively way, with nothing riding on it either. As you said at the beginning, no exam, no assessment; let’s just talk about some stuff.
Billie Gavurin is in her third year of studying for a PhD in English and History. Billie is on a Teaching Scholarship and has been at Bristol since her undergraduate degree in English and Classics. I met up with her to talk about the transition between undergrad and postgrad, her scholarship and teaching as a PhD student.
Do you think there’s been a difference with how you’ve interacted with the university as an undergraduate and now as a postgraduate?
Oh yeah. And it’s been strange in some ways. Obviously, the dynamic between you and the department really shifts as you move into a research degree and start becoming more active in your own research. You’re treated more as a colleague, and it feels really strange to make that shift to working alongside academics who lectured you when you were an undergrad. It’s quite funny, but I love the department and it’s been really nice spending more time here.
Do you feel like as you’ve become more of a researcher than a student, you’re now more on the same level with the staff?
Well it doesn’t feel like that exactly, no. I don’t feel like that about my own research yet, but they’ve certainly been very gracious and they definitely make you feel like they respect the work that you’re doing and regard you as someone who is working as a researcher in their own right.
You say you feel like you’re on a similar level to staff now, does that mean you didn’t feel like you were a researcher when you were an undergraduate?
I think it’s something that came more and more as I moved through my degree. When I very first started, I didn’t see myself as a researcher at all. And I think probably however I had been treated, I wouldn’t have seen myself as a researcher because I still felt like a kid. But by the time I was in my third year, I had to do a dissertation. It wasn’t optional, because of the way the course was structured at the time. I really didn’t want to do one, but I had to and I think it was actually one of the best things I could have done. I was so glad I was pushed into doing a dissertation because that was the first time I was doing independent, really independent, research and it completely led me into what I’m doing now and I’m so glad that I did it. So that shift really showed me that academia was really what I wanted to be doing.
That’s really interesting because in certain parts of the university dissertations or extended projects aren’t compulsory. So, for English, when I was an undergraduate, the dissertation was only 6,000 words and it was optional.
Yeah, it was optional for English then too. The only reason mine wasn’t was because I was a joint honours student and we had to do them. I was really angry at the time that I had to do one, but I’m so glad that I did. I actually do think everyone should have to do a dissertation in English now, after all, it’s an English degree. It doesn’t have to be a long one, but I do think everyone should have to do some kind of more extended research project
What do you think the other benefits of doing a dissertation or an extended piece of research are?
I think having the ability to do independent research is so applicable beyond academia. Obviously, academia is not what everyone wants to do, but I think having that ability to go off and do your own research is going to be helpful in pretty much any career that you go on to do. That kind of independence should really be fostered I think.
Definitely, I agree. So, I wanted to ask you about your teaching scholarship. Could you just explain what it is?
Yes, I am on a teaching scholarship whereby I teach 3 hours a week across the year. Sometimes that’s front-loaded so that I do more in the first half of term. For example, last term I did six hours a week and now I’m not doing any this term. But it works out as 3 hours a week and as a result of that teaching, my fees are waived. So, I don’t pay tuition fees for my PhD’
How much would your fees have cost a year?
I think just a bit over £4,000 a year, so a significant saving across the three years of the PhD. Obviously it also means I’ve had a lot more teaching experience than you might expect for a PhD student at this stage, which is good, but it has been hard to balance my research degree with the amount of teaching I have to do, it has been difficult.
Just to be clear – you don’t pay any fees, but you’re also not paid anything else, like a stipend?
I’m not paid anything else, no. Which means that I am reliant on my family, they are great about it, but it’s something that I have very mixed feelings about. I have mixed feelings about a scholarship that only really works if you have external support, it’s not going to work for every student. And I’m very aware of how lucky I am to be in this position.
It mustput you in a difficult position because if you’ve got your research degree, and then six hours of teaching, you don’t also have the time to have a part time job.
Exactly, exactly. So, I have very complicated feelings about my scholarship. I love teaching, I really love teaching. And it’s shown me that, and I’ve become much better at teaching than I would have if I’d have had limited experience of it. I love working with my students. But I have very mixed feelings about the scholarship itself, even though I’m glad I’m on it. It’s complicated I think.
Do you think teaching has helped you to learn more about your subject?
Yeah absolutely I do. I think because it makes you consider it all in a totally different way, and I think ideally, academia should be aiming to talk about complex things in the clearest and simplest way possible. In order to be a good teacher, you have to be able to put complex ideas into clear and simple language. I think it’s a really good thing to be forced to do. I think there can be a bit of a bubble where things get a bit overly complex in academia, and having to go back to explaining things clearly to people and making sure they understand, is really good for me as a researcher as much as it helps me as a teacher.
How about your wellbeing, as teachers? Are you offered support? Because obviously you’ve got a lot to balance.
I do have a lot to balance. I feel very supported by the English department, I’ve always felt like there are people I can go to. But perhaps relying more on the kindness of individual tutors who I’ve developed a relationship with over the time that I’ve been here rather than a sense that there is a really strong support network through the university as a whole. I think there should be support specifically for Early Career Researchers who are teaching and the stress that can come from that. Given that so much of teaching is done by hourly paid tutors or people on scholarships like me, there should be provisions made for it really.
Do you think that other PhD students who teach are in a similar situation to youin regards to wellbeing?
I know that others have definitely come across problems of really wanting to support their students when they came to them with more emotional issues, as have I, but we don’t always know how to do that. Obviously, we do have the recourse to say you should see your personal tutor or your senior tutor about this, but sometimes students then say ‘I don’t really know my personal tutor’ or ‘I want to talk to you about this’. And while I’m really happy to do that, I want to make sure I’m in the best position to give them guidance and I think my fellow PhD students probably feel the same in many cases.
Of course. Finally, what doyou think is the highlight of teaching during your PhD, and doing a teaching scholarship?
I really, really enjoy teaching. I just I love working with my students. I care a lot about what they get from their degrees. And when I occasionally hear from someone that they’ve really enjoyed the course or that it’s been really interesting to them that that’s hugely rewarding. And I really like hearing their ideas. And I just love teaching seminars. I like facilitating discussion and it’s great to give students a prompt and see them take that and go to interesting places. It’s just a wonderful thing to do.
Thank you to Billie for having this chat with me. It was great to discuss the benefits of extended research and see her passion for teaching. It was reassuring that her department has been so supportive, but there is certainly space to reflect on how the university could better support postgraduate teachers. What struck me the most was how we often focus on students strugglingwith wellbeing and access to support and can forget that teachers, who are sometimes students themselves too, struggle with their own wellbeing and their responsibility to help their students.
Hussain Abass is a third-year aerospace engineering student and president of the Islamic Society (or ISoc). We met in the bustling SU Living Room for a poignant discussion on his experience of Bristol University, and how engagement in student society supported him taking risks.
So, what has your experience of Bristol been like so far?
It’s been very up and down. At first, when I came here I struggled, I was living up in Stoke Bishop and feeling really isolated. Then in second year I became involved with ISoc and the BME Network and I started to engage in student life. That was the turning point for me. I guess I started to see Bristol as this amazing community of young people where I could really feel at home. This is my third year here and Bristol is starting to turn into more of a home. It’s going to be hard to leave when I graduate!
How did you get involved in ISoc and has it changed your experience of Bristol?
I don’t know really, last year especially they needed help so I started getting involved in that, and then suddenly it was like ‘here’s a chance to lead’ and I said ‘Alright fine!’. I did the election and won the vote and said sure, why not. For me, it’s weird because you would think that if you join a religious society and especially if you’re leading it, that you end up surrounding yourself with people who are the same as you. Actually, I found that this year is the year where I’ve made connections with people from all backgrounds, all identities, all nationalities. Because now I’m involved. I’m meeting people from other groups, other societies and people in the SU. So I’m meeting people completely different from me. I mean, yeah, I don’t know how many new Muslim friends I’ve made this year and it’s so counterintuitive! But it’s been an amazing experience because like you just end up broadening your understanding of where people come from, why they have these things that they do, why they have the backgrounds that they do and that sort of thing. It’s definitely made university a lot richer for me. Originally I really wanted to go to Imperial to study, but now I realise I never would have had the opportunity to meet the people I’ve met and be involved in the things I’m involved in now. Bristol is cool!
So we’re involved in pretty much all aspects of what it means to be a Muslim student at Bristol. Whether that’s from our faith background or whether that’s from on the ground realities of what it’s like to be a Muslim in Bristol. We’re involved in organising group prayer sessions, educational activities to do with faith in the contemporary world and generally trying to make the experience of Muslim students here in Bristol more enjoyable. Working closely with the Students’ Union, working closely with university outreach and diversity teams. We’ve been done a lot of charity work during Charity Week and you always see ISoc making bags of money every year!
Also focusing on the representation of Muslim students we’ve been obviously we’ve just come out of Islamophobia Awareness Month and we’ve worked closely with top academics in the field, for me personally it’s been an amazing experience actually working with people who are the top brains on issues like Muslim identity in this country. But also it was about celebrating our culture and it’s been a very enjoyable experience.
Very impressed you manage to do all that and an aerospace degree!
I think what I’ve learned is that actually the more you get involved at uni, the more your studies benefit. You find a lot more value and confidence in your being here. You meet people who help you. One thing I’ve found is that when people realise that you’re actually engaged in something which is beneficial for the wider community of students here, then they are more willing to help you out with your work and anything you’re struggling with in life.
So you mentioned that when you first arrived you felt quite isolated. As you became more involved in university life, have you felt more supported to take risks?
Definitely, I think that becoming more confident in your identity means that you are more willing to take risks. Naturally, when you have a clear support network there are so many facets of your life to fall back on in case something doesn’t go well. I think that’s influenced the way that I have approached my being visible at university. In my first year, you know people would know I’m Muslim but I tried to do that thing where I’d make it very clear that “I’m Muslim but…” I actually came to realise that first of all no one cares. Do you know what I mean? It’s that cliche that you once you realise how little people actually think about you, you stop caring about what they think. It’s okay to be more forthcoming in your identity.
I think that’s influenced the way that we’ve approached Islamophobia Awareness month this year. So actually, we’ve been a lot more politically engaged and we’ve spoken about the effects of government policy in this country. Racist policy like Prevent which is the government’s strategy to counter extremism and how that has affected students of colour, but especially Muslim students. We’ve had discussions about how hate speech can masquerade as free speech. The argument of free speech is often used to hide the fact that what people are saying is rooted in racism. So yeah, definitely being more secure has definitely influenced my willingness to take risks.
That’s a really interesting answer, I think it’s a common student experience that they feel like they need to edit themselves in some way to make themselves more palatable to their peers.
Although I have to say, one thing I learned is that the student movement has always been a space where minorities have felt welcome, and it’s always been a very important tool through which minority groups have felt empowered. That’s something which we don’t get in all spaces.
So it is a testament to the students of Bristol, especially people who are more active in university life, especially some of the more political groups in the university. One thing that I came to realise is that there’s nothing to be shy or embarrassed about in my identity. When people understand, first of all, what a beautiful faith Islam is, and also the commonalities that Islam has with other religions and other faiths. There is so much beauty in all religions and once you realise that people, especially young people, don’t necessarily chime into racist Islamaphobic narratives, then you’re more likely to feel welcome. That’s pretty nice.
So, I think my last question is what do you feel like the biggest risk you’ve taken is? And why did you choose to take it?
Within the engineering department, I’m involved with a lot of super-curricular activities, so actually working on actual engineering projects. In my first year of university, I didn’t do well in my studies and part of that was because I felt quite disengaged with university as a whole. So I sort of took it upon myself, I was like right, I need to fix it up. So I started getting involved in a lot more engineering projects, which if I tell you about a lot of people would be like, how the hell did you manage to source that for yourself? So after my first year, I had an opportunity to work on aerodynamic analysis for this British Touring Car Championship racing team. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a World Record holding jet suits manufacturer, designing a wing for them. I’ve had a lot of opportunities because I’ve managed to step out of my comfort zone. After my first year I kind of felt like a rubbish student, I thought I’m just gonna be a really rubbish engineer. So I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and went to work on these crazy projects, which have put me in contact with some amazing people and taught me some amazing skills.
ISoc itself is something that has taught me a crazy amount of skills and really helped push me out of my comfort zone. So for instance, engaging with the SU has always been something I found difficult. I felt a little bit nervous at first because I always saw it as there’s an in-crowd and there’s us on the outside. But now I’ve realised the value of engaging and showing people your worth and people really pick up on that. I have a lot of skills that I didn’t know I had. If six months ago you told me to do public speaking in front of an audience of 300 students in a debate in the Students Union, I would have thought it would be crazy to be involved in that. But now that’s the kind of stuff I’m engaged with.
Thank you to Hussain for coming to speak to me (on a very miserable day). You can find out more about the Islamic Society here.
It’s lunchtime on Woodland Road. The autumn skylight floods in through the bay window at the Multifaith Chaplaincy. The meeting space is bustling with a few members of staff and dozens of students all giving friendly greetings and catching up over complimentary tea, coffee, and today’s affordably priced soup: Thai Style Pea, Mint & Coconut.
I weave through groups of students immersed in conversation and try to capture a few snippets of student conversations, thoughts, feelings, and perspectives centered around dis/connection, failure, and feedback that make up our experiences of vulnerability whilst at the University. The approach of this Humans of Bristol University feature is to turn towards community spaces at the University and the people bringing these spaces to life.
What brings you to
the Multifaith Chaplaincy?
Emily: I love this space.
I love the soup. I love what these women are doing here; affordable soup is
such an incentive to meet up with friends and grab lunch on campus. The meeting
room has a calm and relaxing atmosphere.
Tom: Yeah. I feel like it is a much better working environment than some of the larger libraries across the campus with clinical lighting and intimidating atmospheres. For me, the Arts and Social Science Library might be a good spot if you are doing work at 3 AM and want to stay awake. But I find the space quite clinical. In often feels like a sad place in the daytime, so I tend to come to the Multifaith Chaplaincy to study in a more relaxing ‘Living Room’ environment.
Do you think
University staff and students could benefit from more of these community-oriented
spaces and the services and support they offer?
Maya: Yes! Especially if
staff are also involved. Some of us have so few interactions with staff members
because of our limited contact hours.
Tom: Also, I feel like there is a demand at the University for spaces like this one. I mean look at the popularity of the SU Living Room… it is so busy there now. In a way, the space has become a bit too busy, so I still think the Multifaith Chaplaincy is the place for me. We definitely need more community hubs on campus to offset the demand of the SU Living Room and to not run the risk of our social and community spaces quickly becoming overcrowded.
What are your thoughts on the growing importance of the ‘Ways to Well-being’ strategy at the University? What do you think is working and where do you think the University needs to improve?
Emily: This year I know where the well-being advisers are in our department; we receive a lot of e-mails about this. I think the University has done a lot more than people tend to give them credit for. The University is getting better at preventative strategies despite the wait-time for counselling remaining rather disappointing.
Tom: I think overseeing student attendance at lectures would be nice. And it does seem to be working for the courses that already do this. The University should grow from this strength. It’s important to check up on how students are doing, whether they are faring well, especially those who do not feel up for coming into University.
Emily: It would be nice
knowing the university actually cares about us as people beyond our academic
Maya: Also, I think the
fact that we do not meet our personal tutors very often is quite detrimental to
student well-being. I mean my personal tutor meets with me like once a term
officially. Me and so many of my friends feel like we do not know what we are
doing most of the time. Then we get grades and feedback returned and feel
confused as to how we ended up with the grade: good or bad.
In terms of negative feedback, how do you feel
reading back on comments from markers?
Emily: Most of us enter University with optimism and high expectation, we often feel the pressure to make the most out of the experience and excel in the best way we can: whether that is socially, in our extracurricular activities, or in our academic grade. Sometimes, given the random collection of factors and unexpected events, we do not succeed in our personal aspirations at University – this can unsettle us emotionally.
Tom: I guess most of us
don’t feel well-equipped to cope with failure. University needs to prepare
students for failure and educate us on mechanisms for coping and reflecting on
that failure. A disappointing mark is never just an academic failure, but it can
feel like a personal failure as well.
Where do you draw energy and support when you
are feeling vulnerable or a little lost at University?
Maya: I think course mates have become so
important for me. Actually, without them I would feel so lost. We have created
group chats and can help each other out with notes and support each other in
both the administrative and academic sense.
Emily: Yeah, I am lucky because biology is quite a
Tom: Oh really? What? Does everyone really get
on with everyone? My course feels so cliquey.
I point out how the opportunities to forge connections across our academic cohort and to develop a sense of belonging should not be left to mere chance and luck. Instead, the ‘importance of course mates’ should be part of the University Well-being Strategy and we ought to think about how much our teaching and learning spaces are conducive to forging personable connections.
Do you recall memories of a time where you had positive engagement with academic staff and how you benefited from it?
Tom: I actually remember
a time where the absolute inverse happened. I remember a time where I was
snubbed by a member of staff. I was sort of following him after a lecture and I
went over and said “I am really interested in (X) you presented and (Y) in the slide,
could you tell me more about how (Z) might fit into what you are talking about?”
He replied by saying
I should go and research this myself and find it all out for myself. But, you
see, I was trying to do that, but I was confused. Despite expressing interest
and showing engagement I seemed to hit a wall. I felt like this particular
staff member really did not care about me. I think the overemphasis on ‘independent
learning’ makes me feel frequently deflated.
Emily: I agree. I find the whole ‘learn by yourself’ style of teaching quite isolating. If I am trying to engage with staff after a lecture or in consultation hours, then I think we are within our right to ask for a bit more personable support and guidance from staff rather than relying on their signposts to research papers. For me the learning is in the process, and staff should be contributing to that learning process. Sometimes I feel like the only recognizable outcome of our academic pursuits is the grade, but what about the learning process required to construct the essay argument itself? I guess a 2000-word essay can’t really encompass all the intellectual growth spurts we feel throughout the term. Nor can all of our learning be neatly certified in a 60 or 69. Yet we still feel like a failure if we do not receive the numerical grade we hoped for.
Tom: Yeah, failing has
so many negative connotations to it. But sometimes our failures can create
moments of learning. It could be cool for us to reorder the popular narratives
around failure and success. At the end of the day we are all imperfect and we
could use this attribute to transform how we respond to challenging experiences
of disappointment and inadequacy.
Emily: Instead of saying, ‘What grade did you get?’ me and my friends ask, ‘Are you happy with the grade you got?’. We then start to talk about our feelings around expectation and disappointment rather than ending our conversations with a numerical grade.