An interview with..., Humans of Bristol University

Dr. James Norman

James Norman is a Lecturer in Civil Engineering and an Academic Fellow for BILT. I caught up with James on the 10th of May to talk about his path into academia, his passion for teaching and engineering, and student engagement.

Taken at Coffee + Beer on the 10th of May 2019

Tell us a bit about how you got into academia.

My path into academia was a little different from everyone else’s…

I did an engineering degree at Nottingham, which is pretty normal! After I completed my degree, I got a job working in industry. I worked for about 3 years, then started doing a PhD and became a Research Assistant.

Research Assistants are usually hired after completing a PhD, but I hadn’t started mine at that point. What I had was industry experience. That definitely persuaded the university department to give me that post-PhD position without even having a PhD. That job was a lot of fun!

After 3 years of payed research I managed to finish my PhD! It was so satisfying but it was also one of the most difficult moments of my life. Only because, my second son was born 3 months into my 6-month write up. I was up with my son until 10-11pm, then worked on my PhD until 2-3o’clock in the morning, I was also working to earn enough money…

I was not a pleasant person for a little bit. Really unpleasant actually, my wife did not like me for a little while!

 I then persuaded the university to let me work for them on an hourly basis teaching one course unit. I did that for about 3-4 years, then I finally asked for a contract. I wanted a contract to have the security of knowing I would be teaching this every year instead of getting to that point when you think ‘Uhm, ok, it’s September, and I’m not even sure I’m going to be able to teach this again.’  

After working part time, I thought ‘I like working in industry, but I love teaching!’

So about 4 years ago, I asked my head of department for a full-time position as a lecturer. I kind of gave him an ultimatum… But that got me the job!

How difficult is it to secure a job in academia?

Getting an academic job isn’t easy. It feels like there’s a lot of serendipity involved.

I get to interview a lot of people for these jobs, and I don’t think I could get a job in academia nowadays. It is so difficult and competitive! There are days when I think, I shouldn’t really be here doing what I’m doing.

But ultimately, even though my experience was quite different from what people expect academics to do, it’s not better or worse.  And everyone has their unique path into academia. Not everyone knows they want to get into it.

All I knew was that I loved designing buildings! And I also knew I wanted to work in industry and at university.

How did you combine your work in industry with your interest in teaching?

It’s great to look at buildings that you designed and say ‘That is mine! I did all of that!’ Nothing beats that. But, ultimately, I also felt I had something to offer at the university. I didn’t want to just teach the norm of how things are in engineering. I think it is important to look at the industry and think about where we are going, what things might look like looking forward, and what are the challenges we are going to be facing in the future.

I like to bring in unusual buildings materials to my lectures. I like to tell students about them in the hope that they would go out into the world equipped in ways that I was never equipped.

I believe that teaching offers the biggest impact for change!

Would you say you do more teaching than researching at the moment?

I think I’m a bit more of a polymath. There is a company mantra that states ‘do one thing well’, well, I’m absolutely the opposite of that! I think it’s fun to do a bit of everything.

But I also need a bit of a focus. I am supervising 1 PhD student at the moment and I love doing that! But I’m not keen to have 100 PhD students at one time. That would be a lot!

I also love my research area on sustainable materials, specifically timber. It’s going to be an extremely important material. My students know how fond I am of it.

Would you be able to name most of your students?

I would love to be able to name all of them obviously, but I don’t know if my brain capacity is that big. I’ve got 300 names to memorise across 4 years. But I do try and take a personal interest in everyone. I think it’s very important to have a relationship with your students!

What are your thoughts on anonymous marking for big group projects? Is it possible?

That’s a hot topic! Most of the time, these projects are double marked, or even triple marked depending on the situation. But it is almost impossible to mark anonymously because group work involves supervisors and other members of staff to talk to students about their projects all the time.

 One solution would be to give everyone the same project. But we also don’t want to give all students the same challenges, it would be boring!

That’s why group projects tend to be more diverse. We want to make students have a choice in what they study. We tend to offer about 30 real-life projects that students can choose from. It is great to be able to give students a wide scope and range of topics. If you’re interested in international development, or water, or infrastructure, there should be opportunities catered for students’ and groups’ interests.

How do you get students to be engaged in their studies?

I don’t know how you feel about lectures, but I love lecturing! It is one of my favourite things to do!  But, it might be for a selfish reason. It is a bit like performance, like an actor or a musician. Everyone is looking at you and ready to listen to what you have to say… I think a lot of people like doing it, but don’t confess to that. Of course, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the best way to learn. But it is a great way of delivering information, so we should make it a performance that students enjoy and find interesting.

We also have smaller classes where we work through teaching material together. I find that it is sometimes hard to bridge that hierarchy between teacher and student. Therefore it is important to have times where teachers and students can discuss course material together. Students get worried if they are stuck on material from week 3 when they are supposed to be on week 7… But at the end of the day, it’s ok if you aren’t on that specific week. You should be able to ask lecturers anything because that is what we are here for. It is important to break down the barriers between academics and students to make their learning comfortable.

In my mind, the healthiest relationship between students and professors is seeing myself as a senior engineer and the students as graduate engineers. There is obviously a hierarchy of knowledge but you shouldn’t feel like it’s because you don’t know, it’s just that you haven’t learned about it yet.

Would you say that knowledge is collaborative?  

I don’t know. I would say that knowledge is acquired through a variety of ways. I remember going on a training course with ‘We The Curious’. The activity leader presented 3 different ways of making Bolognaise. The 1st approach, we were told how to make the bolognaise. The 2nd approach involved having a conversation about the recipe and asking audiences for suggestions. The 3rd approach was a facilitated discussion with the audience.

Even though most people thought we would like approach 3, all the Engineering staff liked approach 1.  I think it’s because we’re used to that kind of methodology: we take information and learn to apply it. And I don’t think it’s an unhealthy way to learn at all! I always look for experts to learn about new things because they use the right tools to learn from. It is obviously very different from collaborative learning, but it does not mean it is better.

The creation of knowledge is far more complex than you think and there isn’t a single ‘tool set’ to learn from.

Do you think Arts subjects will ever adopt a scientific methodology?

I was terrible at ‘the Arts’ when I was a student, so I’m not sure I can comment on that. But I do think that there are many ways we can design our thinking process. I think the sciences like to over-glorify the rationalization of ideas. But we should remember that not all ideas are naturally accepted.  Not everyone has the same views.

For example, I love music, and the music that I love, I love for an irrational reason. Because they are quirky and different. I find that the more people don’t like it, the more likely I am to lean towards it and listen to it. We all have our preferences and our own valuable ways of learning.

If everyone was learning the same way and doing the same thing, it would be very boring!

I also think that there is always a sense of narrative to explain how we’ve learned what we’ve learned.

For instance, when you write an essay, you should view it as a document journeying your learning. You have to have a conversation about what you’ve learned and how you learned.   Reflection is an important practice.

What’s one thing you learned as a teacher?

Learning is one of my favourite things to do. I am currently learning a lot about pedagogy! But One important lesson I learned was through a scheme called CREATE.

I had to write a reflective piece on my teaching practice. When I wrote the draft, I thought, ‘I nailed it.’ Everything was going very well, so I thought this was going to be brilliant. But when I got my work back, the reviewer really tore it to pieces, but in a very healthy way!

I remember sending about 10 revisions of my statement to Jane, who runs CREATE, and learned a lot through those revisions…

There are times you think you’re great at something, and when you suddenly aren’t, it can be a shock to the system. But it is important to experience these moments, both as a student, as well as as an academic.

Wwhat were your perceptions of teaching from when you were a student?

I think I had a pretty unhealthy relationship to teaching and learning when I was a student. I was pretty good at exams and cracked the system by memorizing past papers and answers. It was only in my 3rd and 4th year that I knew I wanted to design buildings and understand how they came to be. I remember walking through a building with a friend and finally seeing the connection between what I was learning and what materialized in real-life.

Honestly, I was a bad student… When I graduated, my tutor said I was one of the laziest students he’d ever had. I used to talk to my friends in lectures, and got in trouble because I had a pencil case full of toys that I would use during tutor time… I would get in trouble.

But education was very different back then. We didn’t have handouts, we wrote everything down, it was far less personable. One great thing was that one of our lecturers knew us all by name! I was always really impressed by that.

As a teacher now, I would never use ‘bad’ to describe any of my students! It’s not true and its certainly not helpful! As an academic, you have to remember that you are not necessarily your cohort. Not all your students are like you.

Do you think students get a bit too stressed about their education nowadays?

I can see both sides to the story. Students do worry a lot about their grades, and to a certain extend, so do employers. But if you have a degree and a portfolio of work that shows that you are a creative and collaborative person, these are also important assets.

Grades are important but are not everything. People are obsessed with the number, and it’s just a number. A number is immaterial; your job offers are placed around your portfolio.

Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that people put a lot of money into their education. It is an important investment and people want to see students succeed. Although it is easy to say the stress is self-imposed, it is because students want to do well, and so do academics!

This might be controversial, but I am often tempted to make the grade boundaries go from 0 to 75. And for every mark you get above 75, you get marked down. So if you got an 82, you would end up with a 68.

The reason I say this is because I don’t think we ever teach people that actually, in life, perfection is not necessary. Good enough is necessary. I don’t think people learn when to stop. They keep going and going and end up getting phenomenal marks, but the personal costs resulting from that are too much.

Teaching people ‘you can stop there, you don’t need to do that’ is important. I do have a lot of students come into my office worried and concerned about the future. But, in industry, you learn something very quickly… You learn that there are so many other priorities in your life too. We need to let people know that ‘good enough’ is a healthy attitude to adopt!

How do you usually tell yourself ‘good enough’ is enough?

I’m terrible at that actually. It’s always a dilemma! As university staff, you care a lot about what you do, but there is a point when caring too much can be detrimental to your teaching. I would love for all of my lectures and feedback to be perfect, but I need to balance that against the cost of other parts of my life as well as the sustainability of my work. I’d rather be doing 20 years of teaching really well, but not perfectly, rather than 3 years perfectly and then stop because of the stress I built up for myself. 

Corrie Macleod – BILT Student Fellow 18/19 working on the project ‘Empowering Students to Impact their Teaching and Learning’

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