Spotlight on ‘Voicing Vulnerabilities’
Dave Jarman is a Senior Lecturer of Entrepreneurship at the multi-award-winning Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Dave greets me at the Centre which sits high on the Clifton hilltops in the Richmond Building to reflect on well-being and the value of failing for growth. Large windows bring uplifting natural light into open learning spaces set up primarily for collaborative groupwork – something feels different here.
So Dave, what sort of initiatives are happening at the Centre for Innovation that consider staff and student well-being?
We do a scheme called ‘Random Coffee Trials’ started by NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. The charity got to 60 people and realised not everyone knew anyone anymore. The meeting was half an hour, a formal set-up (so staff knew they had to attend) but there was no agenda to the meeting, they had to invent the meeting agenda themselves. What NESTA found is that staff got to find out what everyone else did. They realised that many of them lived near each other, they had kids going to the same school – they got a great community piece out of this scheme. So, what we do is ask students to volunteer to participate every two weeks, we got 52 to participate in the scheme and I match them together and give them a 2 for 1 coffee voucher to meet and have a chat.
That’s great because I think the University community could benefit from ‘Random Coffee Trials’ facilitating interconnection outside of their familiar friendship networks and also between staff and students.
Yes, because loneliness can be a big issue in academia. Particularly in the masters and postgraduate communities.
So, I am trying to prompt more honest, open conversations about the meaning of success and failure to students and staff within the University. To represent the more vulnerable side of the Humans of University of Bristol rather than fabricate picture-perfect narratives that offer little opportunities for reflective thinking around our personal shortcomings, inadequacies and uncertainties.
There’s a piece here about how we create value for ourselves. Something about people relying on external reference seems relevant to what you are saying. We often ask: ‘Am I doing this thing in the right way?’, ‘Which night out should I go on?’ ‘Should I buy this item?’. We become dependent on people around us to validate and evaluate what is worth doing, then eventually we start to build up a sense of what is worth doing. The problem is we don’t always recognise the value in something until a few years down the line. When I worked in CV reading, I found that students were typically bad at reflecting on the value in certain experiences, especially the experiences interpreted as failures. You almost need someone to offer that conversational space to help you decipher the value. Yes, that is partly the role of careers. But relying on careers and PDP does not always address the well-being side of things; careers can be, for some students, as intimidating as any other part of the university.
I don’t quite remember to point in which I realised this, but I did have a moment of realisation that I was getting more value from the extracurricular things I was doing than my academic studies. I probably took a cost-benefit analysis, though I definitely would not have called it that back then. When I look back, I think… I got a 2:1 by the skin of my teeth. I could have done better. But actually, the part of my undergraduate degree which was most valuable for me were the soft skills I acquired, all the activities I participated in. All of these elements were integral parts of my student experience. The University does have a role in helping students get the most out of their experience here in whatever capacity that may be.
Yeah. It’s probably unwise to focus on only one part of our experience and start to think about ourselves as a whole. We are human beings, not study machines producing first-class academic results.
And the employers at the end of the process don’t necessarily want students to be that study machine either. Both you and the employers will value all the other bits about your time at university. I guess the thing Higher Education must consider is that students tend to be unfamiliar with reflecting on the value of certain experiences in their undergraduate degree.
I believe there could be something mutually beneficial in having a little more openness in the pedagogical interactions between staff and students. Where both humans engaged in dialogue cultivate an awareness that we are all negotiating doubt and uncertainty by articulating (where possible) our honest moments of vulnerability in academia. Having someone to reflect on failure with at university seems like a crucial means of mitigating negative, if not catastrophic reactions to academic failure.
Personally, I think being human and building some kind of personable relationship with students is part of being a good educator.
…And some of the most resonating knowledge that has been given to me was in a more open conversational capacity.
I think the idea of sharing stories between both parties is worthwhile in revealing the humans on each side. By and large, the tone I am adopting in this conversation is a tone that I often would adopt in the classroom. Some colleagues are not comfortable with that, some perhaps are too comfortable with that. I think it could be inappropriate to expect all staff to take up this approach if they are uncomfortable. But also, it’s partly about how we set up conversations about success and failure within the curriculum itself. So, for example, creativity naturally has to go through a lot of failure, you are not immediately going to come to the most interesting answer right away. Ninety-nine ways of doing something creatively can at first seem stupid, students must be confident with the possibility of being silly in their learning. Imagine being in a group of friends where you are confident being silly: we know that they will forgive us. Then imagine being in a group of people where you are not confident being silly. The former relationships are really good for us; it is where we build personal confidence. That confidence brings resilience. There is something here about humility, it is not always about knowing where we are good but knowing about our shortcomings and how we might be able to grow from them. I have always liked the idea that wisdom comes when we are prepared to admit what we don’t know about everything with certainty.
How can we help students admit that not everything can be known with certainty?
I do better by offering students multiple ways succeeding and failing. I have set my student’s impossible tasks, so students can’t do it, but we are examiners are interested in the process in how the student’s go about it.
Yes, embedding uncertainty into learning could prepare us more for the inevitable uncertainties the modern working world affords. I really enjoyed your recent blogpost about ‘How to Succeed at Failing’ how far do these reconceptualised notions of success, failure, and negotiating uncertainty feed into your vision for the Centre? Does the curriculum here help students reflect on the value of failure?
We are prompting students to be more reflective in their group work, especially concerning giving and taking peer advice. In terms of self-esteem, having people around who can give you affirmation, constructive criticism, and support feels quite useful.
I have personally not taken too well to criticism and the pressures of group dynamics, perhaps out of a fear of rejection, perhaps out of a fear of failing. What do you think about current perfectionist cultures in Higher Education where acute fears of failure are high among a number of students?
The culture of Higher Education has certainly changed since I was in it. When I came through university 20 years ago a 2:1 was great! To be honest, I worked on the career side of the university for a long time and a lot of employers can sometimes be suspicious of a first-class degree. Given the way that academia has developed, the process doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the workplace. Many employers are happy to see 2:1 plus participation in sports, societies, and student media. A 2:1 shows you are capable. It demonstrates a more rounded set of skills. This is not to say university should only be rolling students out for the workplace – I would disagree with that. But there is a space in university life for students to engage in extracurricular activities and projects outside the classroom. I think the reason we’ve ended up in this situation is because we are dealing with ever greater numbers of students and we tend to resort to quite simple measures and metrics to find solutions. Lots of the important things we could talk about regarding well-being area tend to happen in smaller, more thoughtful, and dedicated educational settings. It is possible to build up better networks in smaller institutions. Having four people in your class can give rise to better networks than socialising with four hundred people in your class. Here, I am going to argue somewhere down the middle is probably the most appropriate response. Equally, academia is good at thinking critically. People like to be right: things are either wrong or their right. People rarely stop and say “Well that is wrong. But it is usefully wrong. I can build on what you just said. Or at least I can not pass harsh judgement. We can thank each other for our contribution and work out how to do something better about it.” Much of the academy is not doing enough creative thinking around failure.
What about you? How do you tolerate your failures?
My creative confidence comes from many moments where I feel like I just make things up as I go along. Also, I recall conversations with colleagues who have experienced serious and disruptive moments in their life. Me and one colleague discussed ‘how do you make the most out of negative circumstances?’ We realised as the conversation drew to a close that we must try and find a positive frame in response even though that can feel quite mercenary. We were saying how it is partly about the fact that we must move forward with our lives – whatever happens. The rest of life does not just stop. Up to a point we do have to be ruthless and get ourselves back up after falling down and keep going. It is not about denying the disruptive things that life brings but trying to pay attention to at least a few positive aspects in our challenging day-to-day lives. Whether we deal with the challenges of bereavement by focussing on the present or by paying attention to the positive memories of a loved one. We do not deny the reality of their death but find a new frame when responding to negative things.
I see the power in your outlook, Dave. I often spend some time in the evening reflecting on moments I welcomed throughout the day. Sometimes the moments can feel seemingly simple like the sensation of a juicy orange on my tongue, or the feeling of connection between me and a friend on an evening spent catching up. The reflective process might not work for everyone, at times recalling the day can feel tedious, but in the long term you feel more secure, more satisfied. So, I will keep that close to me.
Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow, November 2019.
Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching