Humans of Bristol University

Dr. David Bernhard

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

Dr. David Bernhard is a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Bristol. He was born and raised in Switzerland and worked as a software developer before coming to Bristol to start his PhD. I caught up with David to talk about his path into academia and his passion for teaching…

Taken in David’s office in Merchant Venturers Building on March 19th 2019.

Tell us a bit yourself and your academic path!

I’m David, my accent is German and I’m a teaching fellow in Computer Science!

I  grew up in Switzerland, completed my undergraduate degree there, then I worked for close to a year as a software developer. I then came over here to do a PhD. I liked Bristol so much I decided to stay on. I’ve been in Bristol ever since!

Who inspired you to go to University and study Computer Science?

My dad’s side of the family were mostly farmers and council employees. Going to university wasn’t really a thing they did. On the other hand, on my mum’s side, my grandparents were the first to get a formal education.They got this education as part of the military actually, because my grandfather was a soldier and my grandmother was in the Royal Navy Reserves.

After the war was over, they were able to train as engineers and teachers. As a result,  my grandma encouraged her daughters to go to university… So, I suppose my mum and her family motivated me to go too!

What were your expectations for yourself as a student?

I think that when I was doing my undergraduate, my expectations were a bit misleading. My mum told me about the university experience in the UK which was very different to how things worked in Switzerland. Going to university in Switzerland almost felt like a job… You turned up, went to lectures, listened to content and then went home and did extra work if you needed to. That was it.

So what are the main difference between education here versus education in Switzerland?

The biggest difference for me, and the part that I really enjoy contributing to as a lecturer in the UK, is the student support system. We don’t really have that in Switzerland.

If you go to a Swiss university, polytechnic school, or a skilled apprenticeship, you get told to consider other academic options or choose different education schemes if you don’t perform well enough.  There’s also no such thing as a personal tutor which means there is little one-to-one support.

There’s no tuition fees or strict admissions process either, which means that when you apply to university, anyone is guaranteed admission. But, 1 in 3 students are expected to fail or drop out at some point. Big reputable schools tend to only keep the top performing students.

However, over here, if we give you an offer to study at an institution, you are most definitely going to graduate. As educators, we really try to do everything for you to get your degree in the end!

What makes a great teacher to you?

The single best thing you can offer is time for your students. Time to stay back at the end of the lecture to talk to students and answer questions, time to hold office hours, time to go to events held by the Computer Science Society…  I truly believe that the ideal university would allow staff and students to support each other, have a coffee or grab lunch and chat about life outside of studies!

Did you always know you wanted to become a teacher?

I always wanted to do something that involved teaching. I think, like lots of undergraduates, I had the idea that a university was a higher teaching institution.  Then, when I came here I learned that Russell Group universities tend to be known as a research institution with a teaching dimension attached. But, I think that we are gradually emphasising the importance of teaching because it is an important part of getting a first class education!

As an academic, do you find the balance between teaching and researching challenging?

Right now, it’s a challenge to maintain a balance between teaching and administration. There’s quite a lot to do at the moment and there are jobs have to be done!  I currently have 24 personal tutees and I want to find the time to support all of them too. I recently had meetings with all my final years to ask about how their degree is going and how they are coping in general. I love to get to know my students as people!

What is a rewarding or surprising story you experienced as an academic in Bristol?

I can say this, since they will remain anonymous… We recently set up an online forum where people could give feedback about lectures or teachers they particularly liked. One person submitted an entry stating that they were struggling with mental health issues but that they got through it. They said ‘David literally saved my life.’ It felt great to get a message like that. It made me feel like I was doing something right as a personal tutor and I want to continue supporting my students in that way.

Do you think it’s a big responsibility for personal tutors to give pastoral support for students?

There are students who may need more professional support, like students with disabilities or long term mental or physical health conditions. But as personal tutors, we should still know how to guide them to the right people.

For the majority of students, tutors should create a place and time where they can talk about their problems openly. Talking and being supportive during those tutor meetings is important. I think everyone is qualified to do that!

Do you have any advice for students who might be worried about the future?

There are certainly big changes coming up, like our future with Europe! I’m actually more optimistic than the media, perhaps, but my personal feeling is that we will be ok. I know that the media headlines always tend to say that everything is terrible, that we are all doomed.

Those negative thoughts do concern me…  But I would tell people that worrying and fixating on the problem doesn’t fix the problem.

We should calmly talk to friends, family, tutors, even strangers, to get advice from other people in a similar situation. Sitting around worrying about it and making posts online complaining about the terrible things that are happening without talking to others doesn’t help.

We need to have discussions about what we might disagree on instead of ignoring each other’s concerns.  Even if things are terrible, we want to be using the bit of energy that’s left within us to try and do whatever good we can for the future!

What is your remedy for stress?

For many years, and I should actually start doing it again, I went hiking. As a PhD student, I was part of the hiking club committee. It was great because you would go on hikes almost every weekend and get to spend a full day outside.

There is a place in Wales called the Four Waterfalls Walk. It’s absolutely amazing and delivers what it says on the tin. It’s just a two hour drive away from Bristol. You should go there if you have the chance.

What’s one thing students should do before they graduate?

I would say that every student should get involved in one thing that has absolutely nothing to do with their course. It can be going on a hike with new friends, it could be playing a sport, it could be doing something creative, perhaps musical…. But getting involved in something different will allow you to invest in energy in something that you love and that you are proud of!

What’s your favorite thing to do in Bristol?

On a nice day, I really like walking around the Harbourside.  You don’t even have to go there for an event! Walking alongside shops, restaurants, bars and enjoying the scenery is enough. There’s also so much to eat there!


Come To David’s BoB Talk on the 26th of March at 1pm:

https://www.facebook.com/events/234597184151306/

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