The interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.
Alix Dietzel is a Lecturer in International Relations and Global Ethics. Her ‘Best of Bristol’ Lecture on the 4th of March presents her research on just global responses to climate change and its ethical impact on societies. I met up with Alix to chat about her research, but most importantly, to learn about her journey into academia.
Tell us a bit about your upcoming BoB lecture on Climate Change
My lecture will focus on climate change as an issue of justice and discuss to what extent the political global response to it is fair. My research is broadly about the human side of the climate change problem – I look at which human rights will be threatened, who will be in danger, why these individuals deserve protection and how fair decisions around climate change should be made. The lecture will reflect on all of these aspects and I hope students will come away with a new understanding of the climate change problem.
When you were a student, did you always know you were going to become an academic?
No, not always. I knew I wanted to teach from a young age (six or seven), and I initially planned to study literature to become a school teacher. My parents weren’t very encouraging of this idea, however. My mother told me I would be a good lawyer and because I wasn’t quite sure about my decision to become a teacher, I agreed to study Politics and International Relations. My aim was to become a human rights lawyer – I thought I’d be able to ‘help people’ that way, maybe do some good in the world. It was during the 2nd year of my undergraduate degree at Sheffield that I first considered becoming an academic. I had a good friend who wanted to do a PhD in History, and my conversations with him made me realise that I could still become a teacher, but at university level.
Were you always this passionate and interested in your area of research?
Not exactly. My first PhD idea was to research ‘European identity’ and how we might work towards a ‘global identity’ to tackle global problems more effectively. I tested out this subject during my master’s dissertation but found it a bit boring and dry. I then took a year out to consider changing topics (and worked for an NGO!). I knew I wanted research a topic that had to do with solving global problems. My prospective supervisor proposed a few different ideas, including doing a PhD focusing on climate change, and that’s what I ended up finding most interesting when I did further research and wrote a new proposal!
When you were doing your PhD, did you ever think, ‘did I make a mistake’?
Every academic has moments when they think they’ve made a mistake. You sometimes wonder: Am I crazy to be doing this? A PhD is hard work and it can be quite lonely. It’s also scary to share your ideas because they might be criticised and rejected. However, I started teaching in the second year of my PhD and I really loved that part of the job – it motivated me to keep going. Eventually, I also got more confident in my research abilities, and I am so glad I finished my PhD. It led me here and I really love my job.
So, what’s the most rewarding thing about teaching?
It’s hard to pick one thing, but I’d have to say it’s watching people grow as intellectuals. It’s so rewarding to see a student say they find the topic difficult or boring (political theory is a hard sell!) and then eventually see their interest in the topic grow as their confidence develops. The people that doubt themselves are usually the cleverest, so it’s an easy job in some ways. You just have to help them find their way a little bit.
What makes a great academic?
It’s hard to say because academics wear a lot of hats! They’re involved in research, public engagement, administration, and teaching. Ultimately, for me, it has to be someone who cares about teaching and learning, not just their own research or career. So, an ideal academic is passionate about their research, but also passionate about teaching this to students and sharing their knowledge with the wider public.
What is the most surprising thing about being an academic?
Probably realising not everyone just like you were as a student. When you start teaching, you have a memory of how you were, and you remember the things that you liked. A lot of academics, including me, were ‘nerds’ as students. We were at the front of the class, participating and doing the reading. But I realised very quickly that not everyone is like that. People are shy, people sometimes aren’t motivated to read because they find it difficult, people don’t always like studying… I had to realise that not everyone is like me, and that’s ok! The key for me was to find a way to engage all of my students, and that took some time to figure out.
What’s your advice for students who aren’t really sure about their future?
I think everybody is worried about what they are doing to some extent. Even me, an academic at one of the best universities in the world, still worries about the future and whether what they’re doing is the right thing. Ideally, you should be comforted by the idea that your self-doubt is not something unique. Everybody doubts themselves sometimes – that’s part of life. The best advice I would give is to talk about your worries! Tell your friends or family how you feel, I am sure they’ll share their own concerns. You’ll quickly learn that you’re not the only person who’s scared of the future.
What do you do to relax and get out of your head when you get these tough feelings?
It depends. Sometimes I like to work out at the gym after work or go for a hike on the weekend because it clears my brain. When I’m stressed, I am often not physically tired, but rather just ‘brain tired’ – exercise helps me with that! If I’m not in the mood, maybe I’ll order some nice food or take a relaxing bath.
It’s very trendy at the moment to say, ‘self-care matters’, but it’s true! It’s important to recognise that when you’re stressed, you need extra kindness from yourself. How would you talk to a friend who was feeling stressed? How would you help them? Treat yourself with the same respect and kindness.
If you’re too short of time for any of that (for example, if you’re about to give a presentation), the best thing to do is to acknowledge the stress, take a few deep breaths and face the anxiety. The presentation (or whatever challenge faces you) will never go as badly as you’re imagining. And, once you successfully face your fears, it’ll be slightly easier next time.
What’s one thing students should do in Bristol?
Take a street art tour! It takes you to areas that are not Clifton, side streets you wouldn’t usually explore, and it’s a different way of experiencing the city. You get to see beautiful, huge pieces of street art you never notice until you go on a tour with a street artist!
You can watch Dr Dietzel’s BoB Lecture right here:
The content of our oral transcription has been edited for the readers.