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 so far?
I 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!
In 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.
Then, 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?’.
A 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.
Now 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?
Yeah, absolutely. Without a doubt, and I think it’s going to be done right.
We 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?
Literally 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.
I 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.
We 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?
I 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?
It 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.
You’re 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.
It 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 the converted.
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?
I 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.
Also, 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.
Lecture 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 comfortable with.
We’re 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?
When 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’.
It’s 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?
I 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 you?
It’s 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.
I 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.
That’s 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 curriculum.
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?
I’m 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?
I 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!
Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow, February 2019