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In interview with… Lee Marshall

In Autumn 2019, Professor Lee Marshall from SPAIS was awarded a BILT Teaching Innovation Grant to organise mindfulness lessons for 1st year Sociology students. In this blog post, Lee answers questions about the project.

Why did you set up this project?

There were two reasons. The first is that, like a lot of academics, I am concerned about the levels of stress and anxiety that students today seem to experience. I know from my own experience that mindfulness can be an effective strategy for managing stress and I wanted to give new Sociology students the opportunity to learn some techniques that may help them in the future, even if they didn’t consider themselves ‘stressed’ at the time.

So this wasn’t just for students who were stressed?

No. In fact, I told the students that if they were suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety, or if they had experienced any kind of trauma in recent months, then this scheme may not be appropriate for them and I offered to help them find more appropriate forms of support available within the university. For this project, I emphasised mindfulness as a pre-emptive technique, a way of proactively looking after your mental health rather than responding to any particular crisis. You don’t just start going to the gym when you’re recovering from a broken leg. I wanted them to start thinking about mental health as something that could be positively managed.

What was the second reason?

The second reason is separate but connected. I have been involved in teaching sociology first years all of my career and I know that it can be very difficult for students to create friendship groups with others on their course. This isn’t a new issue – it was the same when I was a sociology undergraduate many years ago. The emphasis on independent study within sociology and other subjects like it means that students spend much less time together than, say, medics, and this can be a contributory factor to loneliness and anxiety. I hoped that by creating an extra-curricular activity that they would do with other Sociology students, it may help create a group identity which reduced any feelings of isolation.

How did you organise the project?

I used the money from the BILT grant to buy in a professional mindfulness company, Positivemeditation.com, who ran 6 sessions along with a short taster session for people to get a sense of what it might be like. These sessions ran on Thursday afternoons, and there were drinks and snacks afterwards to enable more of a social situation. Initially, I had intended to participate in the mindfulness sessions along with the students, but then I realised that having an old professor hanging around may put a dampener on any kind of group bonding! So, in the end I recruited some third-year sociology students to manage the sessions for me. I publicised the project via the first-year unit that I teach, which all sociology students have to take.

Did you get a lot of interest?

There was quite a high level of interest. When I emailed third years recruiting volunteers to the project, almost a third of students responded. Some of that would have just been people thinking about ‘employability’ opportunities, but a great many talked about what a good idea it was and how mindfulness had helped them deal with periods of stress and anxiety. After I publicised it to the first years, about a fifth of them – 30 or so – turned up to taster session. Following that session, 19 signed up to take the course.

How did it go?

Initially it went quite well. The first two sessions were very well attended, and the students told me that they were enjoying the sessions. But there was then a break because of reading week, and the strike action seemed to have an effect on students’ attendance. The later sessions had much worse attendance, between 4 and 8 students.

So do you think the project was a failure?

That’s hard to answer. Obviously, it didn’t do what I hoped it would do – there is not a blooming sociology community growing out of this project in the way I hoped. Nor have I managed to persuade many first years to proactively look after their mental health. But, at the same time, it is clear that the project was really helpful for those who stuck with it. The feedback I got at the end was very positive. One student wrote that “the mindfulness sessions were brilliant. They were run very well and supportively. I feel like I have new tools in my toolbox to handle being human.” That’s important, and I am happy that those students got something out of it. So, I don’t view the project as a failure, but it didn’t succeed in the way I wanted.

What lessons have you learned from the project?

The main one – which I knew from prior experience, if I’m honest – is that if you try to put on extra-curricular activities, you need an individual – normally a member of staff – to continually act as a cheerleader, motivating students and encouraging them to attend, otherwise momentum fades away quickly. This was one of the problems I was trying to address with the project, but I didn’t resolve it. When I made the decision to not take part in the actual lessons myself, I lost the position that might have enabled me to keep more people committed to the project. If I ran the project again, I would think hard about that decision.

Would you run the project again?

No, at least not as it was constructed this year. It required too much organisation, and the financial costs were too high, for the small number of students who benefitted from it, even though I’m happy for those individual people. I’m also not sure that one individual, or one individual project, can do much to change students’ orientation to a more proactive management of their mental health, even though I do think that is really important. It needs a more institution-wide approach, I think. At the same time, the initial responses I got from the third-year students especially indicate that there is potential interest in more mindfulness-style activity, perhaps at a subject or school level. It would be good if something could be developed that addressed that.

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