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Meet the 2021 BILT Associates…Sarah Jones

The following post is from Sarah Jones who started her BILT Associate role in supporting students transition to University in August 2021.

I am a social and cultural historian of gender and sexuality in modern Britain and North America, currently working on histories of sexual science and popular print culture. Alongside that aspect of my work, I have also been part of some fantastic projects that have explored innovative and engaging pedagogy. In particular, I have been interested in investigating how we can adapt our teaching practice to meet the diverse and changing needs of our students – whether that means looking at integrating digital skills into undergraduate learning, exploring new teaching methods and building new kinds of resources, or, as with my work as a BILT Associate this year, thinking about helping students with the numerous transitions that take place in university.

After finishing off a research fellowship at the University of Exeter, I joined Bristol at what turned out to be a rather strange moment in January 2020 – a flash of calm before a period of great stress and upheaval due to COVID-19. My research with BILT is therefore partly inspired by the immediate obstacles we are facing in these difficult and (as we are often told) ‘unprecedented’ times. As numerous studies and reports have shown, the pandemic has been tough for many students, heightening their anxieties about academic performance, their social lives, financial burdens, and future prospects.  I’m therefore interested in how we can help with the transition to university in the short term, especially in the context of COVID-19 and the extraordinary challenges faced by recent and upcoming generations of students. With the other BILT Transition Associates, I’m investigating how we can put systems in place to support students more than ever, including pulling together resources from both inside and outside of Bristol.

But I’m also interested in exploring how we can think about ‘transition’ in the longer term. Recently, I’ve spent some time speaking with educators from local schools about the ‘jump’ from A-level to undergraduate study. Specifically, we’ve been discussing how much the school syllabus has shifted in the last few years, especially around key skills and areas of knowledge. There have been great changes in the way A-level history students have been taught about how to use and interpret primary sources, and they also get much less practice with testing out their own ideas and constructing their own, independent arguments. These discussions reflected my own experiences of working with new undergraduate students, getting to know the things they struggle with or find especially challenging both at the start and throughout their degrees. For some time, then, I’ve been thinking about potential gaps between the skills and knowledge our students hold and what we think they know and can do. The education support provided by both the department and university is excellent, and the students themselves are outstanding, but what if there was a better way to bridge the gap between school and university? Could thinking more closely about transition help our students become better learners, and could it help us become better educators, too?

Part of my work with BILT this year will therefore be to think about how we can help students with a diverse range of needs transition into university life during, but also beyond, the context of the pandemic. I’ll be exploring the transition from school to university and how our syllabus matches up with and develops students’ existing historical skills and knowledge; investigating the transition from each year of study to the next, and how we can help students develop across their degree; and also potentially considering the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate life, including helping students feel like independent and resilient researchers.

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